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Missouri law on religious schools creates special education challenges

Friday, March 9, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — The full-sized public school bus, yellow and rumbling, pulled up at the front door of St. James Catholic School right on time as usual.

"There's my bus," 8-year-old Matthew Nelson said.

A 40-foot-long bus — literally just for him.

He had slipped out of art class at his school in Liberty with a gentle wave to the teacher.She had whispered, "Bye, Matthew." He had climbed the steps to the main hall with his second-grade teacher and seen the sun-brightened bus outside the glass doors ahead.

He hates missing art. He'd rather remain in his familiar school than make this daily sojourn in his Catholic uniform to spend an hour in his neighborhood public school.

But if he's going to get the federally funded special education services promised to him, he has to go to the public school to get them.

Missouri's constitution won't let any publicly funded teacher come to him.

Religious education backers are making a hard run this year at trying to force a statewide election asking voters to eliminate Missouri's "Blaine Amendment," which blocks all manner of public funding from any religious-based entity.

It is a politically volatile battle, with many public education backers fearing that a change in the constitution would open the door to private school vouchers.

"Public money should not be used to support private schools that are not accountable to the public," Missouri School Boards' Association spokesman Brent Ghan said.

Underneath it all, parents of children with special needs in religious schools find themselves in vexing situations.

Federal dollars, distributed through public school districts, are earmarked for privately schooled children. Getting access to the money, though, can pose one dilemma after another.

The fact that Matthew has a bus at all makes him luckier than most children in his situation.

Liberty Public Schools had extra stimulus dollars for transportation. Otherwise Matthew's parents would have to figure out if they could drive him daily to and from the public school.

Hundreds of parents across the state have to decide: Do you pull your child away from his school for part of the day? What if he needs help throughout the day, requiring a paraprofessional at his side? Do you give up religious education and enroll in public school? What if he has siblings? Do you split them up or move them all?

"I struggle with it," said Michele Hughes, whose 16-year-old son, Brett, needs special services for Down syndrome.

First at Nativity of Mary in Independence, then at O'Hara High School in Kansas City, Hughes has usually chosen not to take her son out of school, letting go of available services that would be free. Instead, they've more often hired specialists to work with Brett in his home school.

They want his day to be disrupted as little as possible. They want him to get the best help he can.

"You wonder," she said. "Am I doing enough?"

One thing the parents wanted to make clear: They have no complaint with the educators in the public schools who are trying to help their children.

Staffs in both the religious and public schools are making the best of a complicated situation, they say.

It's much easier in Kansas. There, parents sit in consultation with the public and religious school staffs as they do in Missouri. But when Kansas teams determine that the best way to serve a child is in his religious school, they can do it.

"We've been fortunate that all our partners are collaborating well," said Karen Kroh, the assistant superintendent for student services for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

In Missouri in 2010-11, 938 students in private schools were evaluated by public schools to see whether they qualified for the federally funded services. Only 523 were served.

Many did not qualify for the funds, though many likely had some level of need that could still be helped if a specialized teacher or therapist worked in their school, principals said.

Nearly 100 students did qualify but elected not to receive the services.

"When it gets so difficult, it's frustrating," said Matthew's mother, Lisa Nelson, about their decision to have him pulled out of St. James every day.

"It's tough for me," she said. "It's harder for him."

Missouri's strict separation of school services follows an emotional trail of political wars and court rulings.

Strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the 1870s spurred Maine Congressman James G. Blaine on a failed attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to block all public support for anything religious.

Supporters took the campaign instead into state legislatures, where many put versions of the prohibition into their state constitutions.

Missouri's Section 8 of Article IX declares:

"Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other municipal corporation shall ever make an appropriation or pay any public fund to help to support or sustain any private or public school, academy, seminary, college, university or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination."

In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregated schooling, the door opened to advancing education opportunities for many groups of students, including students with disabilities.

By the 1970s, federal action established requirements backed by federal dollars to provide better education resources, now codified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Those federal dollars, administered and accounted for through public school systems, are allotted in proportionate shares to all children whether in public or private schools.

All children are entitled to a "free and appropriate public education." Parents who choose to send their child to private school give up that individual right but may still seek public services.

Parents can test with the public school to see whether their child qualifies for federal funds. But the public school system, after consultation with families, decides how it can best serve the most private school students.

Federal guidelines recommend that services to the privately placed students be delivered in a way that is least disruptive to their education. They should help students in their home school unless there is a "compelling rationale" not to.

But the guidelines also apply the caveat that schools provide services "in accordance with law."

A long line of state and federal court cases tugging at the authority of Missouri's Blaine Amendment have resulted in a state plan for issuing federal special education funds that includes the following: "Missouri case law and the Missouri Constitution prohibit the provision of services, equipment, and personnel on-site at a child's private school."

The North Kansas City School District's director of pupil services, Steven Beldin, takes no position on the merit of the prohibitions in the state constitution.

"We work with the law as it is," he said.

If a specialist could go into a child's school, as they do with the district's own children, they could help more students, he said. They could collaborate better with a child's general classroom teacher.

"We go through a lot of logistics to be as least disruptive as we can," he said.


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