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Lawsuit could expand special education programs — and associated costs — in California

Published: Sunday, May 5 2013 3:35 p.m. MDT

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A lawsuit brought by dissatisfied parents in Morgan Hill, Calif., could result in expanded special education services in California, but at greatly increased cost, the San Jose Mercury News reports.

Parents across California have joined in the suit, which asserts that the state is failing to provide a “free and appropriate education” for special education students, as the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees.

The suit accused the state’s special education system of failing to identify and educate students with disabilities in appropriate settings, to correctly implement individual education plans for children, and to include parents in planning, the story says.

“The suit cites instances in Morgan Hill that it claims result from the state's failure, including a 6-year-old autistic child strapped to her chair, student services eliminated and false reports of truancy that resulted in a student being denied access to a school,” the Mercury News said.

An overview of the federal law in question by the New America Foundation said it authorizes federal aid for educating more than 6 million U.S. children with disabilities. The law stipulates that children with disabilities be educated at public expense in an appropriate school that provides the least restrictive access to educational opportunities enjoyed by peers.

The 1975 law is criticized often as an unfunded mandate. But, the New America Foundation analysis points out that though it's true that the law's provisions are underfunded, IDEA is not a mandate. IDEA is a discretionary grant program in which states may choose to participate. States may forgo federal funds to avoid complying with the law's requirements. Currently, however, none do.

Under IDEA, schools are supposed to test students and offer services or accommodations, which can include buses that pick students up at their homes, one-on-one aides, small classes and specialized private schools, the Mercury News story said. The federal government and state pay only a fraction of the cost, leaving districts to pick up the rest.

In the San Jose Unified district, the remaining cost is 14 percent of the district's annual operating budget — $42 million. Those costs would increase by an unknown amount if the lawsuit succeeds. The California Department of Education's legal division said in a statement that it is confident evidence will show that the state's special education services are compliant with federal law, the Mercury News story said.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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