Schenectady County

Public services sought for home-taught kids

In mid-February, Mary Fratianni learned that her local school district would no longer provide speec

In mid-February, Mary Fratianni learned that her local school district would no longer provide speech therapy to her 12-year-old son, E.J., who was born with a rare type of brain tumor.

E.J. has never attended public school. He’s always been home-schooled by his parents but has received special education services such as physical, speech and occupational therapy through his Suffolk County school district. Today, he can walk, talk, read and write.

This winter, Fratianni and other New York parents of disabled home-schoolers were abruptly informed that their special education services were being terminated, the result of revisions to the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act made in 2004. The New York State Education Department issued a memo announcing that public schools are not supposed to pay for special services for students whose parents choose to home-school them.

“Parents are between a rock and a hard place,” said Fratianni, who serves as the special needs coordinator for New York State Loving Education At Home, a group for Christian home-schoolers. Many of these parents, she said, believe they can better educate their children at home, one-on-one, than in public school.

Now, home-schoolers are anxiously waiting to see whether the New York State Legislature will restore special education services for home-schoolers before adjourning this week. Bills that would do so have been introduced in both the state Senate and Assembly.

In New York, approximately 450 home-schoolers receive special education services.

Freedom vs. benefits

Niskayuna resident John Munson home-schools two children, ages 12 and 14. Neither needs special services, but Munson, who runs an online network called the New York Home Educators’ Network, has been following the issue closely. He’s optimistic that Legislature will act before the deadline but said that he and a number of other home-schooling families have concerns about the legislation.

“There’s a lot of disagreement about how effective it will be at solving the problem and whether it poses any regulatory risk,” he said. “A lot of people want to get it passed, but a lot of people are also worried about the bill.”

Home-schoolers prefer to operate under the radar, with little scrutiny from the state. Some home-schoolers worry that passing home-schooling laws will lead to more regulation and oversight.

“We tend to like to be left alone,” Munson said. “People are worried about the long-term implications, that when a light is shined on us, people will say, ‘We need to pay more attention to those people.’ ”

The bill would require home-schoolers who need special education services to file paperwork outlining what they need with their local school districts. Right now, home-schoolers are required to file something called an Individualized Home Instruction Plan; under the proposed law, they would receive special education services if their IHIP is in place and they are determined to be in compliance by their local school district.

Munson said many parents are wary of giving the school district the power to make that determination.

“Some districts are lax in responding to our paperwork,” he said. “If a district does have a concern, they may say the paperwork doesn’t meet their requirements.”

In the past, receiving special education services “wasn’t directly dependent on having the IHIP in place,” Munson said.

There have been state regulations governing home-schooling in New York for decades, but many parents are leery of enacting home-schooling laws. The proposed bill leaves certain terms, such as home-schooler, undefined, but “one of the concerns is that down the road, the Legislature may come back and define those terms in a way that is unfavorable to home-schoolers,” Munson said.

“Personally, I feel we’ve been backed into a corner,” he added. “I’ll be happy if services are restored, but this is the wrong way to do it. … There are families who have kids in terrible situations, with medical problems that prevent them from going to institutional settings, who need educational services, and they ought to be getting them.”

No school, no services

Munson’s children have never attended public school. He said he and his wife believed they could do a better job than the school system.

“We like being able to tailor the experience to the child, rather than tailoring the child to the experience,” he said.

T.J. Schmidt, a staff attorney with the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, a group that has been assisting the New York home-schoolers, said New York treats home-schoolers differently from all other students. The state defines private school students as “non-public school students” and allows them to receive special education services through the public school system, but home-schoolers fall into a category of students who receive something the state refers to as home instruction.

Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the New York State Education Department, said, “Kids who are home-schooled do not attend a school, and services are provided through a school.” Under state law, home schools are not recognized as private elementary or secondary schools.

Some states don’t provide home-schoolers with any special services at all, Schmidt said. If New York passes the legislation restoring special services, it will become the 30th state to provide special services for disabled home-schoolers, he said.

Rich Stauter, a Syracuse area resident who serves as president of Loving Education At Home, said parents of home-schoolers worry that if special services are not restored, they will be forced to enroll their children in public school. Special services, he noted, are expensive if paid for out of pocket.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting special needs students thrive when home-schooled,” he said. “There’s more one-on-one. They get attention from a loving parent that more than compensates for the training of a professional.”

One Brooklyn parent said he began paying for special services for his 12-year-old son in March when he learned his district would no longer provide speech or occupational therapy. Because each session costs about $100, his son is only attending about one-third of his sessions in order to keep up, explained the parent, who asked that his name not be used. He said he learned that services would be terminated only nine days in advance.

Fratianni and her husband had planned to send E.J. to a private Christian school before opting to home-school him because of his special needs.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do if the bill doesn’t pass,” Fratianni said. “He’s always gotten therapy through the school.”

Schmidt said he’s confident that the Legislature will restore special services.

“The home-school community is very encouraged,” Schmidt said.

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