By Judith Bradley
On Sept. 25, one year after the Kentucky State Attorney General issued an opinion that was never published by the Kentucky Department of Education, the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education approved an agreement for dual credit courses with Kentucky State University.
For students with disabilities, this matters. Before this agreement, no special education student has been assured that their rights under state and federal laws would be upheld in a dual credit class. In fact, some have been required by the district and state to give up their special education plans in order to participate in dual credit or AP classes.
In establishing this dual credit agreement, both KSU and JCPS are to be commended. As the numbers show, too few of Kentucky’s students with disabilities are getting the education they need, deserve, and are entitled to. Too few go on to complete training programs, attend college, or have employment commensurate with their actual ability or desire. Yet we complain about a brain drain in our state.
In March 2017, Senator Julie Raque Adams asked for an opinion regarding whether Kentucky’s two public, residential high schools (the Gatton Academy at WKU and the Craft Academy at MSU) are required to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The answer was an emphatic “yes,” echoed by the U.S. Department of Education.
Yes, the state must ensure that all students have access to all opportunities, even those taking dual credit classes.
And still, some attorneys argue that the issue is not settled. Under Kentucky’s constitution, they say, Craft and Gatton are neither public nor high schools. This year’s seniors attending the academies might disagree as they complete their college applications in their state-funded dorm rooms. If these schools are not public high schools, it is because our leaders have deliberately chosen not to properly define them.
Here’s what is settled: the door to opportunity for students with disabilities is closely guarded by gatekeepers who have fallen asleep on the job. It is time to wake up.
It was not until July 17, 2018 — months after the Kentucky AG opinion — that the KDE, thanks to Dr. Wayne Lewis, issued a letter strongly recommending districts implement the special education plans of students attending these dual credit programs.
While I deeply appreciate the actions taken by KSU, the JCPS Board, Senator Adams, and Dr. Lewis, after three years of nonstop advocacy, hundreds of hours of personal effort, and countless pleas to actually put students first, we now have just one agreement between one district and one university which provides a written guarantee. The fact that the JCPS/KSU agreement appears to be the only one which even addresses students with disabilities provides insight into the degree to which these students are off the radar.
When I hear attorneys brag that there are few special ed due process claims in this state, I cringe. Few families could afford one of the handful of advocates available to serve them. And even if they could, why should they have to hire a lawyer?
Families of students with disabilities should not have to wage a legal battle for their children to receive what each and every child is entitled to and deserves — a free, appropriate, public education. Imagine having to hire a lawyer to get your mail delivered.
When it comes to access to the very educational opportunities the rest of our students are told are critical to their long-term success, students with disabilities are subjected to a set of conditions and hurdles that do not exist for any other group.
Policymakers say they are committed to changing this. When?
Judith Bradley is the founder and director of JackBeNimble, a nonprofit organization dedicated to re-imagining special education so that it works for all students, their families, and their educators.