Raising a child with a disability presents a host of challenges for families. There are often significant financial burdens, along with heavy demands on time in the form of therapy and medical appointments. Moreover, the emotional toll that comes with feelings of uncertainty about your child and their future can be overwhelming.
And then there’s school.
The laws governing the education of students with disabilities are complicated. Procedural protections for students are not always obvious nor widely understood. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) spell out the program of special education instruction, supports and services students need to learn, but these are typically jargon-heavy and can be difficult for families to understand and navigate.
All of this makes the promise of meaningful participation by families and students – recognized as equal partners in special education decision-making under the law – at times an illusory one.
A new law (Senate Bill 5532) proposed by State Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia) and State Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island) looks to change this dynamic by providing help to families and students in the form of a special education advocate.
An advocate for the child
Under the proposed law, families would have access to a special education advocate at no cost. The advocate’s role would include:
- Serving as a resource for a student with a disability who is eligible for special education
- Advocating on behalf of the student for a free and appropriate public education
- Helping parents develop or update their child’s education plan (“IEP”)
- Attending IEP meetings to help present the parent and student concerns, negotiate components that meet the parents’ goals or requests, or otherwise help to navigate the process
- Attending IEP meetings on behalf of the child when parents opt out or otherwise cannot attend [note: under current law, in these circumstances the school district can proceed unilaterally]
Bill Brownley is a special education attorney who has represented families and their children with disabilities for the past 15 years. Based in the Washington, D.C. area, he’s seen firsthand how challenging the IEP process can be for families, and why advocacy support can help:
“Parents often feel overwhelmed and outmatched in IEP meetings,” said Brownley. “Support from an advocate during the special education journey can resolve differences early on. This helps create a collaborative working relationship between the family and the school district so that the primary focus remains on the student and their success.”
An opportunity for big improvements
From Sen. Braun: “We have an opportunity this year to support big improvements in how special education is delivered, and the outcomes for students with disabilities. Those needs go much deeper than a budget appropriation,” said Braun. “Parents have told us it’s not strictly about money, which is why our proposal is strong on policies that are geared toward getting them and their schools the kind of help they can use most.”
In addition to providing advocates for families, the bill also includes provisions to:
- improve professional development for general education teachers to support best practices in special education
- create local advisory committees to enable and support engagement between families and the school district
- improve transition planning for students as they prepare to exit high school to better support job training and further education
- adjust funding formulas to better align with actual costs
- provide regular public reporting of critical data, such as graduation and drop-out rates, post high school education and employment, etc.
Read Sen. Braun’s accompanying statement to the bill here.
Learn more about the bill’s provisions to create local education advisory committees for special education families here.