Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Florida legislators grapple with future of special-needs students

TALLAHASSEE — For an afternoon, Mariah Harris wasn't just the girl with Down syndrome. She was the star of a Senate Education Committee meeting.

"I need a real high school diploma," the sixth-grader told the panel last week, her sequined headband glittering in the artificial light. "My dream is to go to college with my friends one day. I want to buy a condo and live on a golf course."

Mariah and her mother traveled 452 miles from South Florida to champion a bill that they say would let the parents of special-needs students play a larger role in their child's education. For Mariah, the proposed legislation could mean the difference between a special diploma and a standard diploma, her mother said.

The bill has spurred some of the most emotional moments of this year's legislative session. But it has also met resistance from some advocacy groups, who say teachers and other school personnel — not parents — should have the final word in determining a child's educational goals. A provision that would allow parents to contract with private therapists during school hours is also drawing ire; some observers see it as an attempt to further the school privatization agenda.

"This usurps the power of the schools at the most basic level," said Kathleen Oropeza of the Orlando parents group Fund Education Now. "Can you imagine a class of 15 (special education) kids with 15 hired consultants in the classroom?"

Federal law requires all children with special needs to have an individualized educational plan, or IEP. The legally binding contract outlines the child's educational goals and requires the school district to provide the appropriate services.

Under current law, parents and specialists help create the IEP, but the school district has the final say. The proposal in Tallahassee would change that paradigm, giving parents the last word. The school system would be able to challenge parents' decisions before an administrative law judge.

The proposal also would enable parents to hire private personnel to support their special-needs children in school. And it would require teachers seeking professional recertification to complete some of their training with special-needs students.

The bill is on a fast track. Its Senate sponsors are Sen. Andy Gardiner, a future Senate president and Orlando Republican, and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former House speaker. Both have a personal connection to the proposed legislation: Gardiner's son, Andy, has Down syndrome, as does Thrasher's grandson, Mason.

But school systems have issues with the proposed legislation, particularly the provisions that would allow parents to contract with private education personnel during school hours.

There may also be legal issues, said Bob Cerra, who represents the Coalition for the Education of Exceptional Students. "Empowering parents is a great thing," Cerra said. "But it is the school district that is legally required to provide a free and appropriate education. Some school districts have actually been sued because they went along with the parents."

The debate has been intensely emotional.

Nancy Linley-Harris, Mariah's mom, described her fight to put the girl on a path to a standard diploma.

When Mariah entered middle school, her mother said, "It seemed as if there was a strategic plan to remove her from being able to get a real high school diploma anymore. … The IEP team, with the blessing from the district (special education) department, purposefully dumbed down all of my daughter's quality educational IEP goals and redid her entire document without me."

Linley-Harris appealed to an administrative law judge, she said, "and lost miserably."

Said Mariah: "My mom gets sad and cries after my IEP meetings. I don't know why."

The Education Committee responded with a round of applause and voted 8-0 in support of the proposal. The bill won the unanimous support of a House education panel later in the week.

"The question of whether parents should be considered full partners in their child's education has been settled," said Richard LaBelle, executive director of the St. Petersburg Family Network on Disabilities. "This is what full partnership looks like."

Florida legislators grapple with future of special-needs students 03/25/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 12:56am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman sells house for $3 million to new player

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman's multi-million Davis Islands home is staying in the Lightning family. Yzerman is selling his 6,265-square-foot house Monday to new defenseman Dan Girardi for $3 million.

    The Davis Islands home of Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman sold for $3 million Monday to Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi. | [Courtesy of Hi Res Media]
  2. Danny Rolling killed five in Gainesville 27 years ago this week

    Criminal

    The following story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on October 26, 2006, the day after Danny Rollings was put to death. Also included are photos covering the period from the time of the murders to the day of Rollings execution.

    Rolling Executed

  3. Hernando commissioners propose tax-rate reduction as budget talks continue

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The typical budget battle between the Hernando County Commission and Sheriff Al Nienhuis has largely been averted this summer, except for a dust-up over how the sheriff has accounted for federal inmate money. But a minor skirmish did break out this week.

    Hernando County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes has suggested a small rollback in the proposed property tax rate for the 2017-18 fiscal year and proposes that it be equally shared by the county's operations and the sheriff.
  4. Trigaux: As Florida seeks top 10 status as best business state, red flag rises on workforce

    Business

    In the eternal quest to appeal more to business than other states, Florida's managed to haul itself out of some pretty mediocre years. After scoring an impressive 8 among 50 states way back in 2007, Florida suffered horribly during and immediately after the recession. Its rank sank as low as No. 30 only four years ago, …

    Florida's trying to make strides in preparing its high school and college graduates for the rapidly changing skill sets of today's workforce. But the latest CNBC ranking of the best and worst states for business gave Florida poor marks for education, ranking No. 40 (tied with South Carolina for education) among the 50 states. Still, Florida ranked No. 12 overall in the best business states annual ranking. [Alan Berner/Seattle Times]
  5. Florida: White man who killed black person to be executed

    State Roundup

    GAINESVILLE — For the first time in state history, Florida is expecting to execute a white man for killing a black person — and it plans to do so with help of a drug that has never been used previously in any U.S. execution.

    This undated photo provided by the Florida Department of Corrections shows Mark Asay. If his final appeals are denied, Asay is to die by lethal injection after 6 p.m. Thursday. Asay was convicted by a jury of two racially motivated, premeditated murders in Jacksonville in 1987.  [Florida Department of Corrections via AP]