PROVIDENCE — The Senate Judiciary Committee has met to discuss a bill which seeks to extend state-funded special education programs to children who attend private school.
Bill SB 0609, also known as “An Act concerning Education — Children with Disabilities,” was proposed by Senator Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston).
According to the proposed legislation, if “a child enrolled or placed in private school by the unilateral decision of his or her parents and without consultation of their public school district…either has, or at some point while in private school is diagnosed with, a learning disability,” the local school district that the child and their family resides in shall pay for any services related to the special education program.
The bill further proposes that the school district is to continue to cover the cost of these special education programs until the child’s 21st birthday.
The bill also puts forward a series of regulations for how to deal with court cases that may arise between the parents of special needs students and the local school district concerning legal issues pertaining to access to special education programs.
It concludes that, if the parents of the child were to win the case, the school district is to also pay the attorney’s fees of the parents.
“Any children with disabilities in a private school setting will have the same rights and remedies that parents would have for children in a public school,” Sen. Lombardi said when introducing the bill before the Senate Judiciary.
Sen. Lombardi noted that the bill is necessitated by the fact that “the resources available at private school aren’t always the same as they are in the public schools.”
Greg Mancini, a local lawyer and president of the North Kingstown town council, gave testimony during the hearings in favor of the proposed bill. Mancini stated that this bill is important on account of its benefit to families who may not otherwise have access to special education programs.
He cited a statistic that more than 1,000 students leave private school and either go on to attend or return to public school in order to access special education programs, which thus serves as a limit on school choice options.
Mancini went on to note that a similar bill was passed unanimously by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 2005, but in 2019 a Superior Court case, responding to a certain controversy concerning the bill, accepted what Mancini calls a “narrow” interpretation of the bill.
This interpretation included eliminating the part of the bill that mandates school districts to cover attorneys’ fees for parents in the case of a legal dispute. Mancini, calling to attention the fact that many parents cannot afford legal fees, asked that, if the bill is passed, it include this stipulation.
The committee voted to hold the bill for further study.