Bill would extend eligibility for special education services in Maine

The state Department of Education wants to change Maine’s special education law to increase the age of student eligibility for services from 20 to 22.

The proposal would codify a practice that Maine adopted back in 2021 after an appeals court found Rhode Island had violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by failing to offer special education services to disabled students beyond their 21st birthday. Supporters say raising the eligibility cap is “the right thing to do,” but critics claim school districts don’t have the money, staff, or resources to do right by this vulnerable population.

“We are keenly aware of the importance in ensuring that all young people in Maine, including those with disabilities, exit high school ready to pursue meaningful opportunities,” said parent Carrie Woodcock, the leader of the Maine Parent Federation and a member of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act State Advisory Panel. “For some young people with disabilities, the option to receive special education services up to age 22 will make the difference in their ability to successfully prepare for adulthood.”

Some opponents question whether the public school system is the place to best serve this population, and say adult services programs funded through the state Department of Health and Human Services would be a better fit for 20- and 21-year-olds. Others say they might like to increase their eligibility age for special education services, but lack the certified staff and money to adequately serve the population already enrolled.

“Our concerns are not about providing services to adult students with disabilities,” Eileen King, executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said during testimony before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in Augusta on Tuesday. “They are about successfully providing services with the appropriate level of funding and the certified staff that is needed to do so.”

Since 2021, when it ordered school districts to increase the eligibility age for special education services, the state Department of Education has been reimbursing school districts serving students ages 20 and 21 through its special education reimbursement formula, said Erin Frazier, the department’s director of special services and inclusive education. In the 2021-22 school year, the department was informed of just 95 such cases, Frazier said.

But some believe that number will grow quickly as some adult services case managers who face financial and staffing shortages of their own urge parents to keep children receiving special education services enrolled in public schools as long as possible. Others predict that parents will file new disability claims to obtain extended school services for children who have stopped attending school regularly but have not earned their diplomas.

Eric Herlan, a lawyer with Drummond Woodsum who has represented Maine public schools in disability and special education cases for 35 years, warned that the bill, L.D. 98, would allow the state DHHS adult services program to leave these young adults in public school for as long as possible, which he argued is not good preparation for the rest of their lives.

“Don’t let adult services kick the can down the road,” said Herlan, who suggested the court had gotten the eligibility ruling wrong. “There is nothing in (the bill) that makes clear that adult services in DHHS must continue to serve persons with disabilities between the ages of 20 and 22. Without any mandate for DHHS, the worry is that they will defer support for these people until the latest possible time.”

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