Maximizing their potential

Advocates for students with disabilities say legislative changes weakened Missouri’s education act
Wednesday, September 24, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:00 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

It’s 9 a.m. and time for school.

But for 7-year-old Ian McEuen, there is no bus ride involved. McEuen, who has cerebral palsy, is being educated in his family’s living room. His curriculum consists of coordination exercises, as well as speech and physical therapy.

Ian’s parents, who recently moved to Columbia from Centralia, decided to home-school Ian when the Centralia school district recommended sending him to a school for students with severe disabilities located about half an hour away. Hester McEuen, Ian’s mother, said that her son’s disability makes it difficult for him to travel and that commuting to school each morning would have sapped his energy for learning.

Under federal law, disabled students like Ian have a right to a “free and appropriate” education, as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Until recently, Missouri law went further by requiring that schools “maximize the potential” of special education students.

But a bill passed at the end of the 2002 state legislative session could result in lowering the standards of special education in the state, say advocates for disabled students. In what some state lawmakers say was a bit of legislative trickery, the bill’s title was changed at the last minute and language was added that replaced the state’s “maximize the potential” standard with the “free and appropriate” federal standard.

Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, a member of the House’s appropriations committee on education, voted for the controversial bill on

May 13, 2002, as lawmakers were winding up the legislative session. Graham said legislators thought the bill applied only to services given to disabled students who are subject to disciplinary measures. However, the version that passed — 146 to 1 — actually gave local school districts more leeway in the placement of special education students.

Two days later, Graham helped draft a petition, signed by 65 of his House colleagues, asking Gov. Bob Holden to veto the bill. Graham said he felt misled by what he called a “sleight of hand in the 11th hour” by the bill’s presenters.

“On the last day of the legislative session, most of us don’t have time to read everything that’s put in front of us,” Graham said. “We didn’t think they’d try to sneak something in.”

Rep. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, asked Holden to veto the bill. In a letter to the governor, she said the bill had been “craftily maneuvered” by a senate substitute.

“Had I known this Substitute was taking away maximum standards for special-needs children,” Bray wrote, “I never would have voted for it.”

The petition failed to sway Holden. In a May 28, 2002, press release Holden said that he understood “the distress of opponents about the manner in which this legislation was approved without public hearing.”

However, he added, “I believe the benefits of the measure outweigh any potential problems.”

Tim Lewis, an MU professor of special education , said he doesn’t expect the bill to have much impact on special education in the short-term. But he fears the state and local school districts could face lawsuits about whether special education students’ needs are being met.

Lewis said he understands the busy lives of legislators, especially in the last days of a session, but he hopes the original maximization standard will be reinstated.

“I think it’s hopeful that Congress is rethinking their decision,” Lewis said. “But it’s also disconcerting that politicians are voting and not understanding what they’re voting on.”

The Columbia School District has 2,726 students who are eligible for special education — 16.8 percent of the district’s total enrollment. The district spends $14.5 million, or about 12 percent of its budget, on special education.

Jeaneal Alexander, director of special education for Columbia Public Schools, said that in Columbia, special-needs children are mainstreamed into classrooms when possible to prepare them for standardized tests like the Missouri Assessment Program, which they are required to take.

“Close to 70 percent (of special education students) are in our classrooms some or all of the day,” Alexander said. “Very few are never in the regular classroom.”

Michael Finkelstein, managing attorney for Missouri Protection and Advocacy Services of Jefferson City, said a new bill could change that. Finkelstein, who represented the McEuen family in a challenge to the bill before the Missouri Supreme Court, said the bill should be declared unconstitutional because legislators were misled about its intent. He thinks repealing the maximization standard will prevent Missouri’s 150,000 special-education students from receiving the most mainstream education possible.

“Without the maximization standard, all a child needs for special education is a passing grade and social promotion. Grades are often inflated by teachers who are influenced by the administration to simply graduate kids,” Finkelstein said. “This disserves children with special education needs, making them tax users — not taxpayers — because they graduate without learning how to read or write effectively.”

But, Curt Thompson, assistant attorney general, argued before the state high court Sept. 3 that legislators had ample information on which to cast their votes on the bill.

Thompson said the titles of both the original house bill and the senate substitute “encompassed the same overarching purpose of educational placement.” He argued in a brief presented to the court that Finkelstein and the McEuens “are seeking to undo legislation because (they) disagree with the policy decision.”

Until the Missouri Supreme Court issues an opinion, Hester McEuen said that she fears the bill will hold public schools responsible for “doing the bottom line” and that her son’s education will suffer if the disputed bill stands. The family is talking with the Columbia School District about enrolling Ian, although for the time being, he will continue to attend class in his living room.

“You hear a lot about schools and the money they don’t have,” Hester McEuen said. “While maximization may not actually cost more, it might be a knee-jerk reaction for schools to cut back if they know this bill is out there.”

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