Bill would extend eligibility for special education services

The State Department of Education wants to change Maine’s special education law to raise the age of student eligibility for services from 20 to 22.

The proposal would codify a practice Maine adopted back in 2021 after an appeals court found that Rhode Island had violated the federal Disability Education Act by failing to provide special educational services to disabled students over the age of 21 . Proponents say raising the eligibility cap is “the right thing to do,” but critics claim school districts don’t have the money, staff, or resources to cater to this vulnerable demographic.

“We are acutely aware of the importance of ensuring that all young people in Maine — including those with disabilities — graduate from high school and are ready to pursue meaningful opportunities,” said Carrie Woodcock of the Individuals with Disabilities State Advisory Panel Education Act. “For some young people with disabilities, the opportunity to access special education by age 22 will make all the difference in their ability to successfully prepare for adult life.”

Some opponents question whether the public school system is the place to best serve this demographic, noting that adult services programs funded by the state Department of Health would be better suited for 20- and 21-year-olds than K-12 schools. Others say they would like to raise their eligibility age for special education, but lack the certified staff and money to adequately care for the already enrolled population.

“Our concern is not with the provision of services to adult students with disabilities,” Eileen King, executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said during testimony before the Augusta Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “It’s about delivering services successfully with the appropriate funding and the certified staff required to do so.”

Since 2021, when it ordered school districts to raise the eligibility age for special education services, the state Department of Education has reimbursed school districts that serve this new population of students between the ages of 20 and 22 through its special education reimbursement formula, said Erin Frazier, director of the department for special services and inclusive education. In the 2021-22 school year, only 95 such cases were reported to the department, Frazier said.

However, some believe the size of this group will grow rapidly as some adult services case managers, who face the same financial and staffing constraints that burden public schools, urge parents to keep children who are veterans of the special education system longer in public Keeping schools enrolled and other parents making new disability claims to receive school credit for children who have dropped out of regular school.

Eric Herlan, an attorney at Drummond Woodsum who has represented Maine public schools with a focus on disability rights and special education for 35 years, warned that the Department of Education bill, LD 98, would allow the state Department of Health and Human Services to serve these young adults as long as possible in the public school system, which he feels is not good preparation for the rest of their lives.

“Don’t let Adult Services kick the can in the street,” said Herlan, who suggested the court got the eligibility decision wrong. “There is nothing in (the bill) that clarifies that adult services at DHHS must continue to serve people with disabilities between the ages of 20 and 22. Without a mandate for DHHS, there is concern that they will delay support for these people until the latest possible date.”

Kathy Hamblen, Gorham’s director of special services, said Maine school districts are already hearing from families who are being told by adult service providers that their 20-year-old children will not be placed on the appropriate service lists until they are 22 because they expect the benefit The additional two years of school available since the Rhode Island court ruling was released. It causes some people to stay in public schools long after their peers graduate, she said.

“It was difficult for her to stay in her high school two more years,” she said. “They no longer have their peers at their school who knew them, supported them and included them at lunch or in class. They have expressed that they are bored after six years of high school and despite a little anxiety about the unknown changes in their future, they are ready for the next step.”

The extended length of service should be based on the need for a smooth transition to adult services rather than a two-year delay in deporting age-appropriate services, Hamblen said.

“The law will extend eligibility to age 22 for any student with a disability who has not yet earned a high school diploma,” said Gay Anne McDonald, executive director of the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities. “The new age rating would expand the school’s compulsory special education to accommodate undocumented students who may claim they didn’t receive a degree because of an unrecognized disability. The range (of this calculation) is greater than assumed.”

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