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The Long Road to Including Special Needs Education in Catholic Schools

Catholic Schools and Public Funding for special Ed

David Bleasedale

William Van Ornum - published on 10/02/13

The costs are enormous, but the need is great, so more and more Catholics are working hard to make sure all children can receive a Catholic education.

This subject interests me on many levels. At the beginning of my career in clinical psychology, I worked directly with hundreds of people with developmental disabilities. Serving as an expert witness for parents, I helped to implement the federal laws noted below. Later, as clinical director of a day treatment program, and serving as a board member of a Catholic agency, I learned about the complexity and challenge of running a special education program. For 25 years, I have woven the research on developmental disabilities into the curriculum for various college courses. Most of all, I have learned in great detail what it means to have a developmental disability from my 28-year-old son who has Down syndrome, and who has become the greatest teacher of all to me.

For decades, it was all but impossible for parents to enroll their special needs child in a Catholic school. These children – with conditions such as learning disabilities, autism, Down syndrome, developmental disabilities, emotional problems, and others – needed to receive their education in public schools, despite the mandate in the Vatican II document on Christian education, Gravissimum Educationis (October 28, 1965), which proclaimed that “all children, in virtue of their dignity as human persons, have an inalienable right to education, adapted to their ability,” and noted as well the responsibility of Catholic schools to offer both moral and academic education to students. For decades, this document has been interpreted to mean that Catholic parishes must offer opportunities such as CCD classes for its children who attend public schools. Now, a wider interpretation suggests that the spirit of this document is to integrate special needs children fully into Catholic schools. In even the recent past, some children with special needs found it difficult to even gain entrance into CCD programs, let alone a full school day. Now this is changing.

In the United States, public schools (rather than Catholic schools) have shouldered special education. In reaction to Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 exposé of the Willowbrook State School – where children were shown unsupervised and covered with urine and feces, legislators in the United States (following a number of Supreme Court decisions, e.g.,Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children vs. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1972; Goss vs. Lopez, 1974; and Mills vs. Board of Education, 1972) enacted sweeping new laws. In 1976, these and other court cases became the basis for Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Act. This legislation covered children ages 3-21, and afterwards Public Law 94-157 was enacted to fund special education for children from birth to age 2.  These laws were modified in 1992 and 2004 as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

This combined legislation mandates the following: (1) All children, regardless of handicap (slight to severe), are guaranteed a free public education. (2) This needs to occur in the least restrictive environment. For example, if a child is able to succeed in a regular classroom, he or she should not be placed in a self-contained classroom with lower functioning individuals. (3) The level of education must be “appropriate,” although it does not have to be the best level possible. (4) Education must occur close to the child’s residence. Lawmakers added this stipulation to stop the practice of school districts that shuttled special education students as much as 50 miles each way from their home and neighborhood.

The financial costs to implement these mandates have been tremendous, beyond the ability of any private school system (such as Catholic schools) to offer these programs to all children. For example, the services of a specialized consulting teacher trained in learning disabilities is in the thousands of dollars per school year for each student. The financial curve for more serious exceptionalities rises steeply. A self-contained classroom, where six to twelve children are taught by specialized teachers and aides, runs in the neighborhood of $30,000 to $50,000 per child. Day treatment programs for students with severe disabilities – with specialized staff, including psychiatrists, psychologists, speech therapists, social workers, and physical and occupational therapists – cost as much as $70,000 per child. Residential care, for children who have been traumatized by physical abuse, sexual abuse, or violence, costs upwards of $100,000 per child. Severely disturbed autistic children with behaviors such as head-banging or other self-abuse may require treatment costing $250,000 for each student enrolled.

These financial as well as federal funding regulations concerning the separation of Church and State have made it difficult to use public money for special education in Catholic schools, since the entire school day includes integration of moral and intellectual formation. (These same laws caused many Catholic colleges to become private rather than sectarian in order to receive federal monies.) For children with mild learning disabilities, it was possible to attend the local public school an hour each day for specialized instruction. If there was a small group of students at the Catholic school who needed related services (speech therapy, occupational therapy), the professional involved could travel to the school to provide the service directly. School psychologists could travel to the Catholic school and provide required testing on-site. Compared to all children with special education needs, these efforts seemed minimal.

Some Catholic educators have creatively sought different sources of funding involving partial reimbursement from the particular state education department (while using the same strategy of changing from Catholic to non-sectarian orientation while retaining Catholic identity through board memberships, hiring practices, and similar approaches.) For example, a flagship program of the Archdiocese of New York, treating severely emotionally disturbed children, receives streams of funding from over 50 sources, including state and federal governments, foundations, United Way, donors, golf contests, and other events (as well as from the Archdiocese itself).  Yet this program has been a rare exception; all of these stringent and even byzantine financial requirements discouraged even the most enthusiastic of parishes from trying to establish a full array of services within the parish setting. But this is changing, ranging from area-wide to more local efforts.

Responding to needs in Maryland and Washington, D.C., the Catholic Coalition for Special Education (CCSE) describes their work in this way:

The mission of the Catholic Coalition for Special Education is to ensure that children with special needs are able to attend and receive an appropriate education in their local Catholic elementary schools and high schools. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.” CCSE provides grants and technical assistance to help Catholic schools achieve this goal.

Parents, parishes, and teachers have done more than pass the collection basket: recently, the group raised over $200,000 in support of their mission, and since 1995, they have raised and given over $500,000 to participating schools.

There are more specific local efforts as well. The goal of St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Charlotte, North Carolina is to establish a classroom for Down syndrome children in kindergarten and provide education for these youngsters up until graduation from high school. The program began with students 14-21 years of age who were mainstreamed into St. Patrick’s and acquired life-skills training at other venues. The Down syndrome children have, on their part, enriched immeasurably the lives of everyone at St. Patrick’s and shown by their presence the motto of Saint Patrick’s Catholic school, “Be Jesus to One Another.”

Overall, the extent of these programs is growing. Two weeks ago, the Diocese of Evansville in Indiana announced that the Fall 2013 education program will include individualized services for special education students who need them. The diocese will also offer intensive instruction for gifted children – whose exceptional needs are noted in PL 94-142, but who rarely receive the intensity of services received by their handicapped peers. Daryl Hagan, Superintendent of Evansville Catholic Schools, described the rationale behind this program.

“We know kids come in various stages,” he said. “And so you have those students with special education needs that have very specific needs in order to be successful, but on the other end of the pendulum you have high ability students, and in order to meet those needs we’re putting in other programs. It’s an opportunity to meet a wide range of student needs at all three schools.”

It has taken nearly 50 years for the hopes of Gravissimum Educationis to begin to be realized in United States Catholic Schools, and at a time when many schools are closing or consolidating. These programs bring great hope to families of special needs students. However, in precarious financial times (with many public school systems running on austerity budgets,) it will be a difficult task to keep these special education programs going. But in reaching out to special education students, these schools are doing an extremely valuable and often overlooked form of Evangelization.

William Van Ornum is Professor at Marist College and Director of Research for American Mental Health Foundation in NYC:

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