February 4, 2011

Special education services could improve under state proposal

Bill aimed to assist students in non-public schools

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Special-needs children attending non-public schools have millions of federal and state dollars earmarked for their education so they can receive specialized help. The problem is that many of those students receive little if any direct service.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, wants that to change, and is working to ensure that state dollars allocated for students with special needs will reach the student even if the student is enrolled in a non-public school.

The special education grants bill, House Bill 1341, authored by Behning would do just that.

“The bill requires that state funds allocated for special needs students enrolled in non-public schools to be spent on their behalf,” said Glenn Tebbe, Indiana Catholic Conference executive director. “It is the right thing to do for our special needs children, and the Church supports the bill.”

Behning, who testified before the House Education Committee, said, “Currently under federal law, special education grants are made available to students in non-public or home schools.

“Many of our public schools across the state have been providing these services for non-public students, but this bill is to specify and make certain that this happens in all school corporations because it is not happening across the state,” Behning said.

“The goal is to make certain that those non-public school students and home school students that have been identified and are in need get the special education services.”

Becky Bowman, an official from the Indiana Department of Education who assists in the administration of Special Education Services, testified in support of the bill.

“This bill mirrors the federal language guiding the proportionate share so that schools spend the special education money generated by counting the non-public special education students—that that money actually goes into services for the non-public students,” Bowman said. “There has not been a requirement up to this point that school corporations do this. I believe that most public schools, because they are serving students with disabilities in non-public schools, … are using these funds, but we have no way to ensure that or monitor that.”

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, testified in support of the bill.

“We believe that this bill will improve the services by parentally placed

non-public school students with disabilities, but also provides the opportunity for additional non-public school students with disabilities to be served.

“After three years in my position at the INPEA, the issue that surfaces most is accessing special education services and the limitations imposed by the lack of resources,” Elcesser said. “I think sometimes there is a perception that non-public schools do not serve children with disabilities, but a study conducted by INPEA in collaboration with University of Notre Dame showed that 97 percent of the non-public schools in the state who responded to the study serve students with disabilities.

“One estimate that I received was that non-public school students with disabilities generate up to $11 million dollars for the state. If all that money was being spent on direct services to those students, I think the impact could be enormous,” Elcesser said.

Kathy Mears, an assistant superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told the House Education Committee that she has “been on a mission since 2004” to get the allocated dollars for special-needs children who attend non-public schools.

“Fifteen percent of our students in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis have been identified as a special-needs child,” said Mears, a former principal and teacher who also was a special education teacher. “Our schools want to serve more students with disabilities. I want to make that very clear.

“House Bill 1341 is not going to solve all our problems, but it will allow more students with disabilities to attend non-public schools in Indiana,” Mears said. “It will help the students who are already there to receive more appropriate services, more services and maybe provide just more time with a specialist.”

Angela Bostrom, the principal of St. Malachy School in Brownsburg, said that her school enjoys a collaborative relationship with Brownsburg Community schools in serving their special-needs children.

“Unfortunately, every special-needs student who wishes to enroll at St. Malachy is not able to due to the limited resources,” Bostrom said. “If House Bill 1341 passes and become state law, St. Malachy will be able to enroll and serve more students with disabilities.”

After nearly three hours of testimony from Catholic school officials, non-public school teachers and parents, the House Education committee approved the bill by an 11-0 vote. The bill now moves onto the House floor for second reading.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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