Dear Member of Congress,
As you are aware, this year Congress must undertake the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Orthodox Jewish community has a significant stake in this reauthorization process. This is because there are a number of problems with IDEA, both in its structure and its implementation, that constitute formidable barriers between nonpublic school students and the services they need to achieve academic and social success. These issues include the following:
To the great disservice of special needs students in nonpublic schools and their families, the amendments in the 1997 IDEA reauthorization enshrined a fundamentally inequitable framework in IDEA. The current law provides every disabled public school student an individual entitlement to receive the full range of free special education services (including, but not limited to, physical, speech and occupational therapy, classroom shadows, etc.), but denies this basic right to other students with identical disabilities solely because they attend nonpublic schools. This inequality of similarly situated public and nonpublic school students under the present IDEA has engendered a nationwide crisis for the private school community in which the needs of thousands of special needs children are going unmet.
IDEA in its current form establishes a disincentive for school districts to fulfill their ‘Child Find’ mandate to evaluate and identify nonpublic school students with special needs. This disincentive is caused by the fact that nonpublic school students are entitled to a certain percentage of IDEA funds, which thereby reduces the pool for the students in public schools. There are consistent reports from throughout the nonpublic school community of the failure of local education authorities to comply with the ‘Child Find’ and ‘Child Count’ statutory requirements.
The standards of consultation between public school and nonpublic school representatives regarding ‘Child Find’ and the provision and location of services are unduly vague. Due to this lack of clarity, consultations with nonpublic school educators on these matters often do not take place at all. As a result, district provision of services is often arbitrary or completely withheld on questionable legal grounds. It is also common for IDEA funds slated directly for students in nonpublic schools are expended on areas of indirect benefit to students, such as teacher training, rather than on much-needed direct educational and therapeutic services.
Even where the local school district does provide services to parochial school students within the context of IDEA, it will often insist that these services be rendered only at a public school or neutral site, causing lost education time as students are transported to and from their special services. It is our contention that these services must be provided on site to be most effective.
We know of your support for affording educational opportunity to all American children, including those with special needs, as well as your commitment to religious liberty. The reauthorization of IDEA is a unique context wherein these two noble goals may – and must – be simultaneously served.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America looks forward to working with you to achieve these goals.