A U.S. Department of Education official has issued a warning that a portion of the September Superior Court court ruling in a Connecticut school funding case could potentially lead to violations of federal special education law.
“Contrary to the lower court’s view, Connecticut and its school districts may not choose to provide special education and related services only for those students whom local educators believe may ostensibly benefit more from a traditional, elementary or secondary academic program,” Ruth E. Ryder, acting director of the federal Office of Special Education Programs wrote in a letter received earlier this month by State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell.
“Rather, they have an obligation to provide special education and related services,” the letter continued, “to all eligible children with disabilities, including children with more severe or significant disabilities.”
In her letter, Ryder said her office has been in conversations with the state Department of Education and asked for Wentzell’s “immediate attention to this important matter.”
A spokeswoman for Wentzell referred all calls to state Attorney General George Jepsen, but the spokeswoman for Jepsen said the office is declining to comment. The state has appealed the controversial, wide-ranging 90-page decision in the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding case.
At issue in Ryder’s letter are portions of Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher’s ruling in which he called for a change in the “irrational” way Connecticut funds special education services and raised questions about the state’s responsibility to educate extremely disabled children.
“The call is not about whether certain profoundly disabled children are entitled to a ‘free appropriate public education,'” Moukawsher wrote in the Sept. 7 decision. “It is about whether schools can decide in an education plan for a covered child that the child has a minimal or no chance for education, and therefore the school should not make expensive, extensive, and ultimately pro-forma efforts.”
In her letter, Ryder noted that the decision states that “… the education appropriate for some students with disabilities may be extremely limited because they are too profoundly disabled to get any benefit from an elementary or secondary school education.”
“The decision states that ‘schools [should] identify and focus their efforts on those disabled students who can profit from some form of elementary and secondary education,'” Ryder’s letter continued.
Finally, Ryder wrote, the court ordered the state to “submit new standards concerning special education which rationally, substantially and verifiably link special education spending with elementary and secondary education.”
Ryder said under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Congress noted that “improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element to our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”
The Act requires the state to provide special education and related services to children with a broad array of “physical, emotional and intellectual impairments and conditions,” Ryder wrote.
Ryder said that a child’s education performance under IDEA “encompasses both academic and nonacademic areas.”
She wrote that it may be that an appropriate program for a child with more significant or severe disabilities would include “many skills that are not part of a traditional, elementary or secondary academic program or curriculum.”
Moukawsher’s ruling called for far-reaching reforms, declaring that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to fairly educate its poorest children, and ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula for public schools.
The decision also directed the state to devise clear standards for both the elementary and high school levels, including developing a graduation test. Moukawsher also ordered a complete overhaul of Connecticut’s system of evaluating teachers, principals and superintendents.
The portion of his decision on special education came under immediate criticism from parents and advocates for children with disabilities.