Denied an extra year of pubic school solely on the basis of their disability, youths with disabilities are separate and unequal under Act 66.
Act 66 has proven to not only be unfair to youths with disabilities; we believe that is has discriminated against these youths on the basis of their disability.
How did this discrimination occur? As described elsewhere, many youths with more significant disabilities plan on staying in public school until they age out at 21, to take advantage of every opportunity to be ready for a more independent life as an adult. And so almost every one of these youths was denied their request for an extra year through Act 66 because laws do not allow youths to stay in public school past the age of 21. These youths were denied an extra year on the basis of their disability. They were offered different options that effectively treated them as separate and unequal citizens. Consider these facts:
Only youths with disabilities who turned 21 years of age last school year were effectively guaranteed an additional year of instruction, if requested under Act 66; all younger youths with disabilities were ineligible for an additional year of instruction. In fact, no additional instructional opportunities was guaranteed to these younger students with disabilities under Act 66.
To have any hope of an additional year of school, youths with disabilities were expected to go through the regular complaint process and complete detailed paperwork demonstrating that they had been specifically and negatively impacted by COVID. Non-disabled youths had no such requirement
To demonstrate a specific and negative impact by COVID, most parents of these youths must be prepared to spend dozens of hours in meetings and potentially thousands of dollars in legal fees to effectively assert their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to have any chance of being granted a month - let alone a year - of additional schooling. As we have described elsewhere, claims that these youths could recoup lost schooling through protections defined in special education law were simply unrealistic, and it is hardly surprising that only about 1 in 1000 parents took formal steps to resolve concerns about their child's special education.
Whereas the additional year offered to non-disabled youths was equivalent to a typical school experience, other options offered to youths with disabilities were completely unlike a typical school experience. Instead, educators offered to train the teachers of youths with disabilities in new - and sometimes unproven - techniques, or to develop and deliver new kinds of services outside of a traditional school day or environment.
We suspect that this was not clear to lawmakers when Act 66 was quickly passed last June. We understand the pressure on lawmakers to act quickly and decisively, and on special educators to promote solutions that later prove to be unrealistic. We therefore view the discrimination against youths with disabilities as an unintended consequence of the collision of good intentions, and limited time and information. The good news is that this can be easily remedied by extending the benefit offered by Act 66 to every Pennsylvania youth with disabilities, beginning with those aging out at the end of this summer, and perhaps continuing in subsequent years. But this opportunity will be lost forever for this year’s graduates unless lawmakers take action before June 30.