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Fearing that special education students will fall substantially behind their peers as a result of prolonged school closures and distance learning, a group of Democratic U.S. Senators is asking for almost $12 billion in the next federal coronavirus aid bill to be earmarked for those students.
The request, backed by California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, would pay for tutors, aides, assessments, technology and other measures to help students in special education, many of whom have been disproportionately impacted by school closures because of the difficulty of providing needed therapies online.
“As we grapple with the impacts of COVID-19, and the resulting school closures, we must meet the needs of all students, including students most vulnerable to educational disruptions,” the senators wrote. “To that end, we write to urge you to ensure that any future COVID-19 relief package protects the rights of students who experience disabilities and provides school districts with emergency funding so that educators are able to effectively serve these students during this unprecedented time.”
Advocates in general welcomed the request. Since U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in April ordered school districts to continue providing special education services during the school closures, some districts have been struggling to provide occupational, speech, physical and behavioral therapy virtually.
The result is that some students with disabilities — such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism — risk losing skills and falling behind. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school districts are required to provide extra tutoring and other services to help those students catch up. The cost of those services would fall mostly to states and school districts, because the federal government only provides a fraction of the funding needed for schools to fully implement special education.
The $12 billion would help offset those costs. And it’s urgently needed, said Lauren Rhim, executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, a nationwide advocacy group.
“To say this (situation) is unprecedented is wholly inadequate. There is so much learning loss happening right now for all students, but especially those students in special education,” Rhim said. “The sooner we can hire more staff and assess what services students will need, the better.”
The stakes are high for students enrolled in special education because they rely on school services not just for academic support, but also for therapies that could propel them to college, employment and independent living, she said.
“What’s often the case is that kids with disabilities are an afterthought (in education policy),” she said. “But no one relies more on an education to live a full life. It’s often the difference between having a job, living independently, and not.”
The newest coronavirus aid bill, Congress’ fifth, is currently being negotiated in the House of Representatives. It’s unclear how the Republican-controlled Senate will respond, but Republicans in the past have generally been supportive of special education. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed March 27, originally called for broad waivers to special education law. But some Republicans agreed to strip that provision and turn over the decision to DeVos, who later opted to keep the law intact.
So far, federal aid related to the coronavirus has topped $3 trillion, with $1.6 billion so far expected for California schools. But none of the money has been set aside specifically for K-12 special education students.
The request, signed by 24 senators and addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, asks for $11 billion to be given as grants to states under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that guarantees students a free public education suited to their abilities. It also calls for $900 million for programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities, and an unspecified amount for training teachers in technological skills needed to improve their online lessons.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, a longtime advocate for special education policy and one of those who submitted the funding request, said that providing extra support for students with disabilities is “absolutely critical.”
“I’ve been incredibly proud and inspired to see the creative and innovative ways that special education teachers are working to meet the needs of students with disabilities under the law. But more must be done to support their amazing work,” she said. “I’ll continue fighting to uphold the protections of IDEA and provide the funding necessary to ensure that students with disabilities and educators have the resources they need.”
Separately, the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 76 large urban school districts nationwide, last week sent a letter to Congressional leaders asking that extra money in the next coronavirus aid bill be reserved for special education students. The $13 billion request is in addition to a request for $175 billion to help school districts offset revenue losses.
“There’s just a desperate need for funding. We’re facing an extremely dire fiscal cliff for the upcoming school year,” said Jeff Simering, director of legislative services for the organization. “And we’re trying to protect the kids who are the most at risk academically, have the greatest need.”
Given the partisan rancor in Congress, Simering is not optimistic that funding will be forthcoming.
“We’re trying to underscore the desperate need,” he said. “Hopefully they won’t let us twist in the wind.”
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