Who’s Eligible for Special Education Services? Schools Struggle to Keep Up

Who’s Eligible for Special Education Services? Schools Struggle to Keep Up

Hayden Gilmore walked across the stage to receive his diploma in 2022 along with the rest of his peers. But unlike most of them, he returned to school for two more years after that.

That’s because Hayden, 20, is on the autism spectrum and struggles with anxiety. In his home state of Pennsylvania, students who have disabilities are eligible to remain in public schools and receive services tailored to their individual needs until the end of the school year in which they celebrate their 21st birthday.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t realize that you can stay after 18,” said Janette Gilmore, Hayden’s mother. “I wouldn’t have even known it either if I didn’t have a network of people” whose children were in similar situations.

Federal law dictates that students with disabilities are eligible to remain in school for as long as the school offers educational programs like community-college pipelines and GED preparation courses to adult students without disabilities. That means students who reach graduation age but aren’t yet ready to move on from the services they routinely receive at school can continue to attend for a few more years.

This little-known requirement for school districts provides a crucial lifeline for families with students who may benefit from additional time in the familiar environment of the school building before transitioning to whatever’s next, whether it’s college, a career, or another supportive program.

But it can also create headaches and confusion for school district administrators scrambling to budget for complex and costly mandatory services; for special education teachers and aides aiming to provide individualized support for students with varied needs; and for parents tasked with figuring out their children’s rights.

The maximum eligibility age for special education services varies from one state to the next. Courts have recently compelled schools in some states to offer services to students for longer periods of time. Costs for special education services have skyrocketed in many places, meanwhile, even as state and federal funding for those services has stayed flat or even declined. And some states lack the resources and infrastructure to support people with disabilities as they transition out of the K-12 system.

Hayden Gilmore

Educators from districts that intentionally prioritize older students’ unique needs say such programs have a transformative impact on their social and economic prospects after high school.

“The benefits for each student can look quite different, but some tangible ones are the social opportunities, the ability to make connections within the community, look for those competitive employment opportunities, and prepare for as much independence as possible,” said Kathryn Romero, director of student services in the Barrington, Ill., district, where students with disabilities can continue their education through the school year in which they turn 22.

Shifts in special education policy can be abrupt and confusing

As with so many policies governing American education, states differ on the maximum age at which students can receive special education services.

Since 2021, at least nine states have shifted the maximum age to 22: Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. Most of those states now require services through the student’s 22nd birthday or the day before, though Illinois requires schools to offer services through the end of the school year during which the student turns 22.

That shift has happened in large part because of a growing legal consensus that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to offer special education services to students until they turn 22. The law is ambiguous on the specific requirements and has been subject to varied interpretations since it took effect half a century ago.

The failure to extend those offerings can be costly. Hundreds of former students in Hawaii reached a $10.25 million settlement with the state in 2018 over allegations that older students with disabilities lacked access to educational opportunities that students without disabilities had.

The situation in Pennsylvania has been particularly complicated in recent years.

In August 2023, shortly before the school year began, the Pennsylvania Department of Education announced that the state’s schools must extend special education services to students until their 22nd birthday. The decision stemmed from the settlement of a federal class action lawsuit filed by a 19-year-old student with disabilities and his parents.

Three school districts filed a lawsuit a few weeks later challenging the rule change, arguing the department didn’t give them enough time to weigh in.

On May 16, a court sided with the districts and temporarily halted the age-22 eligibility, which meant students were once again eligible through the end of the school year when they turned 21.

But four days later, the policy changed yet again, when the state education department informed districts that a court had restored the age-22 eligibility rule in response to the department’s latest appeal, according to an email to district leaders from the department obtained by Education Week.

Last year’s initial policy change was already jarring for districts and families. Kirsten Scheurich, director of special education for the Hershey district, spent four days last September frantically calling parents whose children had left at the end of the previous school year to see if they wanted to return until their 22nd birthday.

In the last month, she’s made two more rounds of calls to parents keeping them up to date on the latest developments.

“We feel like we’re calling parents to say, ‘You can stay, no you can’t, yes you can,’” Scheurich said. “Parents are just like, ‘What is going on?’”

In her district, only one student chose to return as a result of the eligibility extension.

But in some neighboring districts, Scheurich said, numerous students came back, leading districts to spend hundreds of thousands of unbudgeted dollars on out-of-school placements for returning students.

Those unexpected costs add to an already substantial burden many districts shoulder in their legally mandated effort to provide special education to students with disabilities. Federal funding covers less than 15 percent of special education expenses nationwide, and many states shift the onus to school districts to make up the difference.

Additional services for older students with disabilities can be costly

In Illinois, as in Pennsylvania, the increased age limit for services came without an accompanying stream of new state funding.

In a graduating class of roughly 1,000 students, as few as 20 might choose to stay in a given year, said Melissa Taylor, assistant superintendent for student services for the 3,400-student Belleville district. But the cost of services for those students adds up quickly.

Some students in the Belleville district opted to stay in cooperative programs or private facilities for which daily tuition bills can be many times costlier than the district’s average per-pupil investment.

We feel like we’re calling parents to say, ‘You can stay, no you can’t, yes you can. Parents are like, ‘What is going on?’

Kirsten Scheurich, director of special education, Hershey school district

“If you have a student whose birthday happens to fall on Sept. 1, they now are finishing out that school year, and so that can be a hefty burden on a school district that wasn’t planning for that,” said Taylor, who also serves as executive director of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education.

The abrupt expansion of special education eligibility also forced the district to quickly investigate whether teachers were certified to serve 22-year-old students, as many teachers are not. Taylor had to collaborate with the district’s private provider partners to ensure their paperwork matched the evolving state mandates.

“We went through a little panic that we would have kids who would lose placements because the schools were only approved through age 21,” Taylor said.

Thankfully, though, “those things have not happened.”

Many families don’t know additional time is an option

Conversations about the post-high school transition for K-12 students with disabilities can start as early as age 14. Parents and school district representatives, sometimes with the help of lawyers and consultants, weigh the options for what the student will prefer to do and be capable of doing once they reach graduation age—whether it’s college, the workforce, vocational rehabilitation, or home care, among other options.

This process can be a learning experience for everyone involved. Sometimes families don’t even realize keeping the child in school past age 18 is an option, said Audrey Trainor, an associate professor of special education at New York University.

“It really is dependent on whether the professionals are highly aware, highly organized, coordinating together,” Trainor said. “You can imagine across institutional services, it can be challenging.”

Some district administrators worry that tying a student’s eligibility to their birthday creates jarring situations for students who have to leave school mid-year.

“If you had an Oct. 1 birthday, you were able to start the school year and then all of a sudden, on your birthday, you’re no longer able to come back,” said Romero, in Illinois.

In 2021, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation that allows students to continue receiving services through the school year in which they turn 22, rather than being cut off on their birthday.

The abrupt cutoff “makes it very, very difficult, especially in terms of trying to ensure that we are helping families and students connect with the right adult services and supports beyond what can be offered through the public school,” Romero said.

Arranging the post-high school future for students can also be tricky if state agencies tasked with providing support to adults with disabilities haven’t adjusted to the possibility of new entrants to the system year-round, Taylor said. That’s more likely to happen if students age out of the school system after their birthday, as opposed to the end of the academic year.

An even steeper challenge for recent high school graduates with disabilities comes when they try to access state-offered services. Hundreds of thousands of people nationwide are on waitlists for disability services from overburdened and underfunded state agencies.

Hayden and his family started discussing his post-graduation plans when he was in 9th grade, his mother said. Especially with the onset of the pandemic happening during his time in high school, they ultimately agreed he would do best with more time in school.

He ended up staying two years. This coming school year, the last one he’s eligible to attend in full, he’s joining the Project Search program, which helps connect students with disabilities to local professional opportunities. Next year, instead of going to school, Hayden will participate in an internship at the Hershey Medical Center.

Leaving school the day after his January birthday would have been hard for Hayden, his mother said.

Especially with the ongoing policy turbulence around these services, Gilmore believes parents of children with disabilities need to help each other out.

“You’ve got to be involved, network a little bit, find someone that may be a few years ahead of you,” Gilmore said. “It just helps.”

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