By Joshua Benton
Navigating the bureaucracy of the public school system is difficult with any child, but it can be truly intimidating if your child has special needs.
The great news is that there’s plenty of help out there for you.
In 1975, Congress passed what is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which defined a strong set of federal guarantees in special education. While regular education is largely left up to state and local officials, special ed is governed by an entirely different set of rules.
“Special ed has come a long way from what it was back in the 1960s when they had segregated schools,” said Sheila McComas, a special-needs teacher in Garland and mother of a child with cerebral palsy and mental retardation.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you try to ensure your child is getting proper help:
School districts are obligated to provide services for children with special needs from ages 3 to 21. If a child has vision or hearing problems, services begin at birth. For children under 3 with other needs, parents can call Early Childhood Intervention, a state agency based in Austin, at 1-800-250-2246 for free in-home services. The Web site is www.eci.state.tx.us.
Some special needs are obvious, such as physical disabilities and Down syndrome. Others, including pervasive development disorder (PDD) and autism, require testing. School districts provide testing on request for free. A child found to have a disability will be given an individualized education plan (IEP).
It’s important to know that being identified as having special needs doesn’t mean your child can’t be in regular classes. Special education can mean anything from occasional meetings with a speech therapist to a separate contained classroom. Parents have a large say in determining what direction the help takes.
Evaluating the plan
Once the child is in the special-needs system, there are regular admission, review and dismissal (ARD) evaluations. In these meetings, parents can discuss the appropriate therapy for the child and whether the goals for the child should change.
According to the law, if a school district cannot provide an appropriate education for a special-needs child, it is obligated to pay for the child to get those services in a private facility.
When the system fails
Special services are expensive. The average cost for special-needs children is $12,000 to $16,000 a year, compared with $6,500 to $7,000 for other children, education experts say. Sometimes parents want services that schools don’t think are needed.
Dissatisfied parents may seek help from companies that provide advocates for the children during negotiations with school districts. Students First, based in Frisco, charges a flat fee of $2,250 a year. Partner Assistance for Texans with Handicaps is a federally funded parent advocacy group that works with parents of special-needs children for free, although with less one-on-one attention.
As a special-ed parent, you also have federally guaranteed rights not available to other parents. For example, if you disagree with a school’s evaluation, you have the right to seek another opinion. In many cases, the school will pay for it. In most cases, you can appeal any decision of your school to a neutral hearing officer.
But state policy is aimed at keeping things as non-confrontational as possible, and officials will suggest using a nonbinding state mediator if disagreements arise.