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Florida legislators grapple with future of special-needs students

TALLAHASSEE — For an afternoon, Mariah Harris wasn't just the girl with Down syndrome. She was the star of a Senate Education Committee meeting.

"I need a real high school diploma," the sixth-grader told the panel last week, her sequined headband glittering in the artificial light. "My dream is to go to college with my friends one day. I want to buy a condo and live on a golf course."

Mariah and her mother traveled 452 miles from South Florida to champion a bill that they say would let the parents of special-needs students play a larger role in their child's education. For Mariah, the proposed legislation could mean the difference between a special diploma and a standard diploma, her mother said.

The bill has spurred some of the most emotional moments of this year's legislative session. But it has also met resistance from some advocacy groups, who say teachers and other school personnel — not parents — should have the final word in determining a child's educational goals. A provision that would allow parents to contract with private therapists during school hours is also drawing ire; some observers see it as an attempt to further the school privatization agenda.

"This usurps the power of the schools at the most basic level," said Kathleen Oropeza of the Orlando parents group Fund Education Now. "Can you imagine a class of 15 (special education) kids with 15 hired consultants in the classroom?"

Federal law requires all children with special needs to have an individualized educational plan, or IEP. The legally binding contract outlines the child's educational goals and requires the school district to provide the appropriate services.

Under current law, parents and specialists help create the IEP, but the school district has the final say. The proposal in Tallahassee would change that paradigm, giving parents the last word. The school system would be able to challenge parents' decisions before an administrative law judge.

The proposal also would enable parents to hire private personnel to support their special-needs children in school. And it would require teachers seeking professional recertification to complete some of their training with special-needs students.

The bill is on a fast track. Its Senate sponsors are Sen. Andy Gardiner, a future Senate president and Orlando Republican, and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former House speaker. Both have a personal connection to the proposed legislation: Gardiner's son, Andy, has Down syndrome, as does Thrasher's grandson, Mason.

But school systems have issues with the proposed legislation, particularly the provisions that would allow parents to contract with private education personnel during school hours.

There may also be legal issues, said Bob Cerra, who represents the Coalition for the Education of Exceptional Students. "Empowering parents is a great thing," Cerra said. "But it is the school district that is legally required to provide a free and appropriate education. Some school districts have actually been sued because they went along with the parents."

The debate has been intensely emotional.

Nancy Linley-Harris, Mariah's mom, described her fight to put the girl on a path to a standard diploma.

When Mariah entered middle school, her mother said, "It seemed as if there was a strategic plan to remove her from being able to get a real high school diploma anymore. … The IEP team, with the blessing from the district (special education) department, purposefully dumbed down all of my daughter's quality educational IEP goals and redid her entire document without me."

Linley-Harris appealed to an administrative law judge, she said, "and lost miserably."

Said Mariah: "My mom gets sad and cries after my IEP meetings. I don't know why."

The Education Committee responded with a round of applause and voted 8-0 in support of the proposal. The bill won the unanimous support of a House education panel later in the week.

"The question of whether parents should be considered full partners in their child's education has been settled," said Richard LaBelle, executive director of the St. Petersburg Family Network on Disabilities. "This is what full partnership looks like."

Florida legislators grapple with future of special-needs students 03/25/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 12:56am]
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