October 18, 2013

Catholic Education Outreach / Gina Fleming

Further choice for students with special needs

In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the face of Jesus is seen in each of our students. Our 68 schools are committed to meeting the spiritual, academic, social, and emotional needs of every child we serve. We are thrilled that more families who desire a quality Catholic education can become a part of our school communities through the Indiana Choice Scholarship (voucher) law.

This year, the law was expanded to include siblings of students already receiving a Choice scholarship, students who otherwise would have attended a failing public school who are income-eligible, and students who qualify for special services through an individualized education plan (IEP) or individualized service plan (ISP) who are income-eligible.

The majority of our school students affected by the addition of a “special education voucher” were enrolled prior to the 2013-14 school year. Last year, more than 670 students in third through eighth grade identified as having special needs were enrolled in our schools. The state attorney general ruled that “CHOICE” is permitted in the law, meaning that parents have the right to select the provider for special services to their child.

In cases where the local public school, also known as the local education agency (LEA), is able to provide sufficient services, parents may choose such services in addition to placement in a Catholic school. Schools have the right to determine whether or not they will be (or can be) a service provider. The intent of the legislation was to increase educational opportunities for students with identified special needs.

Generally speaking, when a non-public school student qualifies for special services, his or her parents reject FAPE (free, appropriate public education), and a service plan is implemented at the non-public school.

For example, if a child attends St. Mary’s and is eligible for speech/language services as identified through an IEP, that child’s parents may reject FAPE and an ISP is implemented. If the child is eligible for a Choice scholarship, speech services may be provided through the public school LEA at St. Mary’s or through St. Mary’s directly.

By rejecting FAPE, there are some services that may not be provided through the LEA. However, most schools in the archdiocese have developed their own resource programs in an effort to support the learning differences and God-given uniqueness of all students in their schools. In doing so, many are prepared to provide equal, if not more comprehensive, services to their students than those which could be provided through the LEA.

We are grateful to our LEAs for partnering with us to serve our students over the years. This partnership has allowed for students to receive speech services, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and much learning support throughout numerous archdiocesan schools. In many cases, however, our Catholic schools already provide significant support to students with learning differences outside of any benefits and services provided through the LEA.

With the expansion of the Indiana Choice Scholarship program to include special education, parents of students with IEPs or ISPs who also qualify for the Indiana Choice Scholarship may select the provider of services, determining who receives the state monies that are linked to the identified disability. This additional choice option gives many of our schools greater flexibility with providing benefits and services that they may not have been able to previously provide.

LEAs will continue to provide services (through an ISP) for parentally placed non-public school students who are not receiving Choice scholarships, and students who qualify for the Choice scholarship and designate the LEA as their service provider.

To learn more about the specific services provided through your parish school or local Catholic high school, please contact the school principal.

(Gina Fleming is superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)

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