Access the article originally published by The Wall Street Journal.
Written by John M. McLaughlin
Military families move often. For those whose children require special-education services, each relocation requires a rewrite of their entire Individualized Education Plan—a detailed document outlining the student’s unique educational and therapeutic needs that is designed collaboratively by parents, teachers, therapists and other professionals. This process can drag on for months while vital services are put on hold and students may regress.
There’s a simple solution: Grant military families portable IEPs that move with them and keep their children’s services intact. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, every student in special education is entitled to an IEP. Crafting one is time consuming. It requires numerous meetings, consultations and negotiations. Starting one from scratch is a burden for any family. For military parents, the process can feel endless.
Some military installations have their own Defense Department schools, but more often children of service members attend local public schools. The federal government provides impact aid to local districts to offset the cost of educating children of military families. But the special-education law says that when a child with an IEP enters a new school, the IEP process starts anew.
This is true if a family moves from Sarasota, Fla., to San Francisco or to a neighboring district. It’s a “school first,” not a “student first,” regulation, designed to make sure the child’s needs fit what the district has to offer, not the other way around. Congress’s intent, however, was for school districts to provide what children need.
Take autism spectrum disorder. Close to 20,000 military children are on the autism spectrum. A portable IEP would allow their parents to accept assignments free from the fear that a new school would require them to return to the beginning of what can be an emotionally draining nightmare of paperwork, meetings and phone calls. The federal government should also invest in hiring the therapists and specialists necessary to meet the needs of children in special education at Defense Department schools and adjacent public-school districts.
Sens. Maggie Hassan and Chris Murphy have called for $11 billion in additional federal support for special education in future Covid-19 relief bills. Those funds aren’t earmarked for the military, but a portable IEP for military families would represent a commitment by the federal government to offer the children of American service personnel the best possible education. Those who devote their lives to defending our country deserve nothing less.
Mr. McLaughlin is managing partner at McLaughlin Advisors and a coauthor of “We’re in This Together: Public Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk Education” and “How Autism Is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA.” He is also a director at ChanceLight Education.