Education

New bill creates unnecessary burden for special needs students and their families

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On Thursday, Feb. 14 the legislature’s education committee held a public hearing on a bill, LD 464, that would greatly affect the landscape of options for special needs students in Maine.

If you are a parent of a special needs child and you are not satisfied with how your home school district is providing your child’s education, you have recourse referred to as a “unilateral special education placement.” Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), parents may move a child from their local public school district to a non-public school in order to ensure a “free appropriate public education” for the child.

Parents may request a hearing with the home district to attempt to recover the costs of a unilateral placement. Federal law allows for this to occur as long as parents file a complaint within two years asserting that a free appropriate public education had not been available to their child.

LD 464, sponsored by Rep. Teresa Pierce of Falmouth, would restrict parents’ ability to request a reimbursement hearing to within 90 days of the child’s first day enrolled in an alternative program.

Parents who have reached out to The Maine Wire have expressed worry that this bill, if passed, would further burden them since pursuing a unilateral special education placement only occurs in extreme cases. When families undertake this option, many times they need legal representation in order to make the best case for their child, incurring even greater costs.

The vast majority are not trained to navigate this process. Parents must prove that their school district had not made available a free appropriate education for their special needs child and that the specialized school will do so. This is an exorbitantly high standard imposed on Maine families and limits choice in their child’s education.

Passage of this bill would not only impose a significant additional burden for families with special education needs, but also for the specialized schools that provide this vital service.

Disability Rights Maine (DRM), an organization that represents folks who are experiencing discrimination or a violation of their rights based on a disability, is testifying against LD 464 at its public hearing. Atlee Riley, a managing attorney with DRM explained their position in response to an inquiry by The Maine Wire:

“[T]he proposed reduction in the filing period contemplated by LD 464 is significantly more restrictive than the default standard in federal law and is out of step with almost every other limitations period in Maine. In addition, it would place potentially insurmountable burdens on families of children with disabilities who have determined that they must, at great financial risk, secure privately what they could not obtain publicly.”

Mr. Atlee cites various other limitations in state and federal law much broader than this proposal. For instance, the limit on filing for attorney malpractice is 6 years and 3 years for medical malpractice. For claims against ski areas? A whole 2 years.

Because the shorter time period for parents’ appeals would cause them to shy away from even considering a non-public option, the alternative schools that provide special needs programs would suffer as well. The effects would be far-reaching, and legislators should be thinking of the unintended consequences.

Betsy Mahoney of the Autism Society of Maine also testified against this bill, along with a host of concerned parents. ASM’s written testimony can be found here, which includes a straight-forward fact sheet, eloquently stating the numerous issues with LD 464.

Why would our public officials consider stacking the deck against special needs students? The struggle their families endure to find the right school or program is more than most of us can imagine.

Lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure access to quality education for all children in Maine. LD 464 would squeeze families’ options and leave special needs students behind.

About Nick Murray

Nick is the Outreach Coordinator at The Maine Heritage Policy Center, working to plan events, engage with supporters, and spread the word about MHPC's work to new audiences around the state.

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