Study: MA Private & Religious School Students Denied Federally Funded Special Education Services

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on
LinkedIn
+

Despite federal laws to the contrary, state education agency claims providing services at private schools would violate amendments to state constitution

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 Fr. 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 Fr. 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.

About the Authors

Father Tom Olson is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston who is currently assigned as Parochial Vicar of Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid Parishes in South Boston.

Stephen Perla is Superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Fall River.

Michael Sentance has served as Massachusetts secretary of education, state superintendent of education in Alabama, and as a senior official in the U.S. Department of Education.

William Donovan is a former staff writer with the Providence Journal in Rhode Island where he wrote about business and government.

About Pioneer

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.

Get Updates on Our School Choice Research

Related Posts

ASU’s Julie Young, Virtual Schooling Pioneer, on Digital Learning during COVID-19

This week on “The Learning Curve," co-host Cara Candal talks with Julie Young, ASU Vice President of Education Outreach and Student Services, and Managing Director of ASU Prep Academy and ASU Prep Digital. They discuss the implications of COVID-19’s disruption of American K-12 education and the future of digital learning.

The Institute for Justice’s Michael Bindas on the SCOTUS, Carson v. Makin, & Expanding School Choice

This week on “The Learning Curve," co-hosts Cara Candal and Gerard Robinson talk with Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice (IJ). They discuss IJ’s 2020 landmark U.S. Supreme Court win in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, and its implications for state Blaine Amendments, bigoted legal barriers that have blocked religious liberty and school choice for over a century, as well as the Maine school tuitioning case, Carson v. Makin, which was recently granted certiorari.

Nina Rees on the 30th Anniversary of Charter Public Schools in America

This week on “The Learning Curve," Gerard and Cara celebrate the 30th anniversary of charter schools with Nina Rees, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Blended Learning Expert Heather Staker on Student-Centered Lessons During COVID-19

This week on “The Learning Curve," Gerard and Cara talk with Heather Staker, founder and president of Ready to Blend. They discuss her work with the late Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn on disruptive innovation and schooling, as well as her book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, and her recent publication, Developing a student-centered workforce through micro-credentials. 

Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher on Edu Federalism, School Choice, Learning Pods

This week on “The Learning Curve," Gerard and Cara talk with Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation. They discuss the growing popularity of learning pods, an education innovation propelled by K-12 public education’s failure to meet the COVID-19 moment. With as many as three million children enrolled in learning pods, 35 percent of parents participating in them, and another 18 percent interested in joining one, Butcher shares findings from his report on the role of pods in expanding parent-driven educational choice options.

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews on An Optimist’s Guide to American Public Education

This week on “The Learning Curve," Gerard and Cara talk with Jay Mathews, an education columnist for The Washington Post and author of the recent book, An Optimist's Guide to American Public Education. Jay describes the three key trends in K-12 schooling that he views as cause for hope.

Study: Systemic Failure in IDEA Implementation for Private School Students with Disabilities in Additional States

On the heels of a $3.8 million settlement for private school students with disabilities in Massachusetts for the state’s failure to comply with provisions of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that require provision of equitable, publicly funded special education services to students in private schools, a Pioneer Institute study finds that two states and three school districts around the country for which data are available also appear to be out of compliance.

Dartmouth’s Prof. Susannah Heschel Discusses Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel & the Civil Rights Movement

This week on “The Learning Curve," Gerard and Cara talk with Dr. Susannah Heschel, the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, and the daughter of noted 20th-century Jewish theologian and Civil Rights-era leader, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. They discuss what teachers and students today should know about Rabbi Heschel’s life and legacy.

Best-Selling, Netflix Author Loung Ung On Surviving Pol Pot’s Killing Fields

/
This week on “The Learning Curve," Gerard and Cara talk with Loung Ung, a human-rights activist; the author of the bestselling books First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Lucky Child, and Lulu in the Sky; and a co-screenwriter of the 2017 Netflix Original Movie, First They Killed My Father. Ms. Ung shares her experiences living through genocide under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, which resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population. 

American Federation for Children’s Tommy Schultz on School Choice & Edu Federalism

/
This week on “The Learning Curve," Gerard and Cara talk with Tommy Schultz, CEO-elect of the American Federation for Children (AFC). They discuss how COVID-19 school closures have increased the interest in alternatives to public schools, and what AFC's polling shows on shifts in attitudes toward school choice options in both urban and rural communities.

Key Madison Park Program Lags Other State Voc-Techs, but Shows Signs of Improvement

The co-operative education program at Boston’s Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, which places students in paid positions with local employers, lags far behind other Massachusetts vocational-technical schools in terms of both placements and number of employer contacts.  But with the school as a whole beginning to improve after years of turmoil, the co-op is also showing promising signs, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

UGA Prof. Valerie Boyd on Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance, & Black History Month

/
This week on “The Learning Curve," Cara and Gerard celebrate Black History Month with Professor Valerie Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Georgia, and the definitive biographer of Zora Neale Hurston. Boyd discusses why Hurston is such an important novelist and cultural figure, and the influence of Hurston’s 1937 classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, on American literature.

Boston Catholic Schools Supt. Tom Carroll on National Catholic Schools Week

/
This week on “The Learning Curve," Cara and Gerard celebrate National Catholic Schools Week with Tom Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston. He shares his view of the value that Catholic schools add; the reasons for their success at improving student outcomes and creating a sense of community; and their commitment to serving children from underprivileged backgrounds, regardless of religious affiliation. 

AZ Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick on National School Choice Week

/
This week on “The Learning Curve," Cara and Gerard kick off National School Choice Week with Arizona Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick, co-author with Kate Hardiman of a new book, Unshackled: Freeing America’s K–12 Education System. Justice Bolick shares his experiences serving on a state supreme court, and how it has shaped his understanding of America’s legal system.

New Book Offers Roadmap to Sustainability for Massachusetts Catholic Schools

Catholic schools in Massachusetts must focus on the characteristics that make them academically successful and distinguish them from traditional public schools, but must also seek new models and governance structures that will help them achieve financial sustainability, according to a new book published by Pioneer Institute. The book, "A Vision of Hope: Catholic Schooling in Massachusetts," will be the topic of a webinar co-sponsored by Pioneer and the Catholic Schools Foundation to be held on Wednesday, January 27 at 2:00 pm. 

Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy on Charter Schools, Achievement Gaps, & COVID-19 Learning Loss

/
This week on “The Learning Curve," Cara and Gerard kick off the new year with Eva Moskowitz, CEO & Founder of Success Academy Charter Schools, a network of 47 schools enrolling 20,000 K-12 students in New York City. Eva shares her own education path, and how it influences her leadership and philosophy.

USED Asst. Sec. Jim Blew Talks Sec. DeVos, School Choice, & K-12 Politics

/
This week on “The Learning Curve,” Cara and Gerard are joined by Jim Blew, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education. Assistant Secretary Blew shares lessons from leading and implementing K-12 public education reform efforts in often contentious policy environments, and the unique challenges of the current partisanship and gridlock in Washington, D.C.

New Study Provides Toolkit for Crafting Education Tax-Credit Scholarship Programs

In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key impediment to private school choice, Pioneer Institute has published a toolkit for designing tax-credit scholarship programs. Now available in 18 states, nearly 300,000 students nationwide use tax-credit scholarships to attend the school of their family’s choice. TCS policies create an incentive for taxpayers to contribute to nonprofit scholarship organizations that aid families with tuition and, in some states, other K–12 educational expenses. This paper explores the central design features of TCS policies—such as eligibility, the tax credit value, credit caps, and academic accountability provisions—and outlines the different approaches taken by the TCS policies in each state.