Superintendent co-authors paper addressing challenges
Catholic students have accessing federally-funded services


By Dave Jolivet
Anchor Editor
davejolivet@anchornews.org

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Stephen Perla, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Fall River, was one of four individuals who recently co-authored a White Paper, funded by the Pioneer Institute, that addresses the fact that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has, for more than a decade, failed to comply with allotting a “proportionate share” of federal funds earmarked to provide students with disabilities special education services. 

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The Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately-funded research organization that seeks to change the intellectual climate in the Commonwealth by supporting scholarship that challenges the “conventional wisdom” on Massachusetts public policy.

The White Paper is titled, “No IDEA: How Massachusetts Blocks Federal Special Education Funding for Private and Religious School Students.” 

According to the Institute press release about the paper, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has failed to proportionately distribute the federal funds via the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, enacted in 1997. “Each year, the federal government allocates billions of dollars to the states under IDEA. States then apportion money to local education agencies (LEAs), which are supposed to determine the ‘proportionate share’ of IDEA money that should be used to provide to eligible private and religious school students with disabilities special education services. Within each LEA, the proportionate share determination is based on the total number of eligible private school students with special needs attending private and religious schools located within that LEA.

‘“Federal education officials under two administrations have now expressed concerns about how Massachusetts has been administering hundreds of millions of federal dollars for this program,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute. “We hope this research will drive an important public discussion about state education officials blocking federal IDEA dollars for special education students in private and religious schools.”

Perla told The Anchor that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has not been in compliance with IDEA since it was authorized in the Commonwealth in 2004.

“The U.S. Department of Education does audits and had done an audit on Massachusetts and found that the Mass. DESE was out of compliance,” said Perla.

The White Paper indicates, “the DESE has, in effect, turned a blind eye to the requirements of federal law, and the practical result is that private and religious school students with disabilities have not had reasonable access to the special education services that federal civil rights law IDEA affords to them. Private and religious school students who are entitled to IDEA-funded special education services have no real option other than going to a public school in the town wherein they reside to receive those services.”

Perla told The Anchor, “Thousands of students have been denied their civil rights, and we [authors of the White Paper, with the Pioneer Institute] are trying to correct the state’s moral and fiduciary failure.” 

Co-authoring the paper with Perla, who is the former executive director of Parents Alliance for Catholic Education, which represented the Catholic schools in the four dioceses in the Commonwealth, on Beacon Hill, were Father Thomas Olson, a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, with experience in fund-raising for Catholic institutions and a school choice advocate; William Donovan, a former staff writer for the Providence Journal, where he wrote about business and government; and Mike Sentance, former Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, Superintendent of Education in Alabama, and a senior official in the U.S. Department of Education.

The White Paper was written to educate the general public and public policy officials about how the funds are and are not being distributed.

“Our hope is to educate the public about this injustice and ultimately enact change so that eligible students who require IDEA-funded services will be able to access said services,” said Perla. “We hope the U.S. Department of Education will act favorably on our claim.”

The Pioneer Institute press release follows.

NOTE: The entire “No IDEA: How Massachusetts Blocks Federal Special Education Funding for Private and Religious School Students,” can be found at pioneerinstitute.org, Study: MA Private & Religious School Students Denied Federally Funded Special Education Services, and clicking on the blue NO IDEA link.



PRESS RELEASE


BOSTON — Over the past dozen years, thousands of private and religious school students in Massachusetts have been denied hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of special education services to which they are entitled under federal law.

According to “No IDEA: How Massachusetts Blocks Federal Special Education Funding for Private and Religious School Students,” a new study published by Pioneer Institute, this denial is due to the non-compliance of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Each year, the federal government allocates billions of dollars to the states under IDEA. States then apportion money to local education agencies (LEAs), which are supposed to determine the “proportionate share” of IDEA money that should be used to provide to eligible private and religious school students with disabilities special education services. Within each LEA, the proportionate share determination is based on the total number of eligible private school students with special needs attending private and religious schools located within that LEA.

“Federal education officials under two administrations have now expressed concerns about how Massachusetts has been administering hundreds of millions of federal dollars for this program,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute. “We hope this research will drive an important public discussion about state education officials blocking federal IDEA dollars for special education students in private and religious schools.”

For the current fiscal year, Massachusetts received a total of $255.5 million in IDEA funding to apportion to the state’s LEAs. IDEA requires services to be provided onsite at the private school unless there is a compelling reason to offer them elsewhere.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has asserted that state and locally-funded special education services to private school students are more generous than those which are provided to them under IDEA. In making this assertion, DESE has found cover to argue that the special education needs of private school students in the state are adequately being met but that the provision of these services onsite at private schools would violate the anti-aid amendments to the state constitution that prohibit public aid to private schools.

Having made this argument, DESE has, in effect, turned a blind eye to the requirements of federal law, and the practical result is that private and religious school students with disabilities have not had reasonable access to the special education services that federal civil rights law IDEA affords to them. Private and religious school students who are entitled to IDEA-funded special education services have no real option other than going to a public school in the town wherein they reside to receive those services.

The authors use the example of a student living in Sharon who attends a private school in Brookline. The student would have to travel to receive services, meaning s/he would miss considerable school time and parents would have to take significant time off from work to transport the student.

“In reality, private and religious school parents face a choice between foregoing needed services to which their children are entitled by federal law or paying for them out of pocket,” said Father Tom Olson, a co-author.

In 2007, the Parents Alliance for Catholic Education and the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston proposed amending state special education regulations to allow private and religious school students to receive services at their schools. To avoid running afoul of the anti-aid amendments, they defined a “neutral location” as “any room or space on the grounds of private schools that are devoid of any religious symbolism.” They even went so far as to propose that the rooms be used exclusively for special education, but the Commonwealth still rejected the proposal.

A coalition of Catholic and Jewish schools conducted meetings with senior DESE officials over a two-year period, but those meetings yielded no change.

In 2017, a broader private school coalition filed a series of complaints with DESE’s Problem Resolution System (PRS). The complaints demonstrated that as many as 16 percent of private school students may have qualified for federally-funded special education services, but that only about one percent were actually receiving them. Nonetheless, PRS proposed no effective remedy.

Last fall the coalition appealed to the U.S. Secretary of Education, claiming that over 12 years, between $96 million and $290 million of IDEA funds allocated to Massachusetts LEAs should have been used to serve private school students.

Co-authors Father Tom Olson, Stephen Perla, Michael Sentance, and William Donovan recommend that LEAs should be directed to spend IDEA money onsite at private schools unless there is a compelling reason not to. If there is, then private school students should be provided with publicly-funded transportation to receive services.

The co-authors also call for a private school special education ombudsman to address the systemic issues raised in the private school complaints and for DESE to implement additional requirements to increase transparency around the expenditure of IDEA money earmarked for private school students.

The authors attempted to interview DESE officials for this research paper, but state officials refused.


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