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Advocates to Education Department: Tell schools to focus relief funding on students with disabilities

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during a news briefing Wednesday at the White House. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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A national coalition of educators’ unions and others is asking the Education Department to make clear to school districts that they should direct significant K-12 funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to help students with disabilities — especially those of color — who were entitled to services during the coronavirus pandemic but did not receive them.

The coalition is filing a petition Tuesday asking the department to provide guidance to districts saying that “American Rescue Plan Act funds should be used to assist students with disabilities in recovering from disrupted learning and delayed” or forgone services due to the pandemic. The petition also wants department guidance to include suggestions for how this money can be spent to assist these students.

A new report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles finds that all students with disabilities suffered more from loss of special education and other support and services than regular education students — and the losses were great for students of color with disabilities.

As students with disabilities return to school, districts are unprepared to meet their needs, report says

The “petition for guidance” being filed requires, by federal regulation, that the department respond within 90 days, and the petitioners said they hope department officials will include teachers and other student advocates in their deliberations.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act provides $122.7 billion to K-12 schools, with the provision that they must use 20 percent of these funds for programs that address learning loss. The remaining funds can be used for purposes including hiring additional teachers and other staff members and reducing class sizes.

The Rescue Act also provides $3 billion in additional 2021 funding for the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that mandates all children receive a free and appropriate education and any related services through an Individualized Education Plan.

The petitioners are asking that the department guide districts to use some of the general relief funds for students with disabilities as well as the directed IDEA funding.

“The American Rescue Plan Act funds allow states and school districts to begin to tackle the multiple and overlapping problems that historical underfunding and racial bias have caused with the correct identification and support of students with special education needs and disabilities,” the petition says.

“Guidance from the Department can play a pivotal role in ensuring this opportunity is not squandered. The Department should immediately issue guidance informing states and school districts of their obligation to spend this money equitably and in ways that tackle discrimination and unequal outcomes resulting from both the pandemic and pre-pandemic causes.”

The petitioners are parents of students with disabilities; teachers unions in Los Angeles, Boston, Austin, Madison, Milwaukee and Oakland; and the Advocacy Institute.

Specifically, they are asking that the guidance make clear that American Rescue Plan funding can be used to (among other things):

  • Hire additional qualified staff (such as educators, paraeducators, school psychologists) to provide support and services to students with disabilities;
  • Provide funding for the creation and implementation of 504 plans for students;
  • Provide safe and reliable transportation services so students with disabilities can safely access in-person instruction;
  • Provide high-quality professional development to all school staff on identifying trauma, implicit bias, and resiliency; and
  • Provide programs to assist students with disabilities with remote education technologies and modalities.

Though it is difficult to determine how much learning students have lost during the pandemic, some experts have said “the situation appears dire, especially for students with disabilities,” the petition says.

One student whose parent is a petitioner is 11-year-old fifth-grader Jeremy H., who identifies as Mexican American and who is in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has an IEP for speech issues. His mother, Alicia B., is severely immunocompromised because of lupus.

The petition reports the following:

  • Jeremy was first diagnosed with a speech issue when he was not speaking at age 3 and living in a homeless shelter. From kindergarten to fourth grade, Jeremy attended general education courses and received speech therapy from the same speech therapist.
  • Once remote learning began in March 2020, Jeremy did not attend any Zoom classes for the remainder of the school year because he was not comfortable having his computer camera on.
  • As a result of this anxiety, he also missed his Zoom speech therapy, although his speech therapist was able to reach him by phone on a few occasions.
  • After months of discussion, Jeremy agreed to attend Zoom classes during the 2020-2021 classes if his camera was off. Although Alicia regularly communicated with the school about Jeremy’s paralyzing anxiety, the school never recommended that Jeremy be evaluated or receive services for anxiety.

About 7 million students — or close to 14 percent of all K-12 public school students — are eligible for special education under requirements of IDEA, which mandates that public schools provide a free and appropriate education designed to meet their individual needs through IEPs.

The federal government has never come close to funding IDEA as it promised when the law was passed three decades ago; it promised to cover 40 percent of the costs for districts to meet the law’s mandates but has reached just over 13 percent annually.

In addition, there is no dedicated federal funding to provide support and services to another group of students with disabilities covered by a different law. Those students have disabilities but rather than needing special education, they need different support and services. This group of students, estimated by the UCLA report to be nearly 1.4 million and growing, are identified for services through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

School districts have little incentive to identify students who need services through Section 504 because there is no federal stream of funding attached, the petition notes.

“In more affluent suburban districts, parents can bypass this deficiency because they have the resources to go to many different specialists to obtain correct diagnoses,” it says. “Students in rural and urban districts with inadequate access to specialists or with parents who cannot take paid time off to accompany their children to multiple specialists often are unable to obtain a diagnosis on which to base a Section 504-only plan.”

While underfunding remains critical, more is needed to ensure equity in education for students with disabilities, the petition says, including “more robust federal oversight, civil rights enforcement, and greater transparency with data at the district level.”

In recent months, several class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of students with disabilities who were denied special education and other services during the pandemic. But, the petition says, “the problem is much larger and more entrenched than the remedial scope of these lawsuits.”

“This petition asks the department to use its full authority to evaluate and redress these longstanding systematic failings,” it says. “Guidance from the department is particularly critical as millions of students are returning to in-person instruction for the first time in over a year and educators are facing the unprecedented task of reconnecting students to an in-person school community, assessing students’ social and emotional well-being, and determining the best way to meet students’ mental health and learning needs after this unprecedented year.”

The coalition filing the petition said that it sees the move as a first step toward ensuring that all children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education and the services and support they need; that the federal government funds 40 percent of the cost of meeting IDEA mandates; and that the federal government monitors and enforces civil rights laws protecting students with disabilities and students of color.

“More than 1 in 10 students is a student with a disability,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country. “Our educators know what these students need, and they know what they have been deprived of for far too long.

“If we do not lead in addressing these longstanding inequities coming out of this pandemic, our students of color with disabilities will be left even further behind,” she said. “As we emerge from the covid-19 pandemic, we cannot simply return to the status quo.”

“It’s clear that in particular, students of color, Latinx and Native American students with disabilities have suffered mightily,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest national teachers union.

“For too many, their needs are simply not being met — they can’t access the individualized education plans designed for them, they haven’t received additional support with remote learning technology, and the response to their trauma, all too often, is discipline instead of support. What’s worse, the shortage of dedicated special education support personnel is leaving far too many of these students to fend for themselves. ... This 90-day petition for guidance is a much-needed pathway for students, families and educators, as we move from global pandemic to recovery in our nation’s schools.”

Here’s the full petition: