Legislation to fix gaps in Act 66 is the right thing to do for youths with disabilities, and the parents and educators dedicated to them. But you must act now.
When you passed Act 66 unanimously last year, your intent was unmistakable: Section 1383 (a) reads: “It is the intent of the General Assembly to ensure that the present generation of school-age children do not lose educational opportunities due to COVID”. And after its passage, many of you promoted Act 66 as if ALL students with disabilities were eligible for an extra year, with claims like those made by Senate President Jake Corman in his June 30 2021 news release :
“The new law… allows parents the option to extend enrollment in special education programs for an extra year due to COVID-19. This provision will prevent students with special needs from aging out of the system at age 21 after missing out on much of the specialized attention they need due to COVID-19 disruptions.”
We are grateful that you acted with a compassionate concern for ALL Pennsylvania youths when you moved quickly to pass Act 66 last June. We recognize that circumstances can change or cannot be fully anticipated, which can leave the best intention - even when enshrined in a law - tripped by reality. We can understand how the relentless pressure you face in controlling costs, combined with the pressure that educational leaders face to leave no one behind, could have led to the shared misconception that other special education protections could help youths with significant disabilities recoup from COVID.
After almost a year, we now know better. It was completely unrealistic to expect special education protections to help youths with disabilities recoup schooling lost to COVID. Accelerated learning would never be equivalent to the extra year freely offered to every non-disabled youth in Pennsylvania. And who could anticipate COVID would suspend critical community-based training opportunities for 12 to 18 months after schools re-opened? The data are now clear - more than 1500 youths with significant disabilities did not get the extra year they likely needed. Taken together, Act 66 effectively discriminated against these youths on the basis of their disabilities, and proved to be grossly unfair to the parents and special educators who dedicate their lives to them.
We elect each of you because you are willing to work hard to deliver what Pennsylvanians need. That is YOUR promise to us. And beginning to fix Act 66 - at least for those most profoundly impacted by COVID - is a promise you CAN deliver on.
The work required is reasonable. No new taxes need to be raised to help those aging out this year or next - schools need only re-allocate federal funds expressly given for this purpose. No new programs need to be developed - we can capitalize on years of effort individualizing educational programs for youths with significant disabilities . Or we can just let these investments go to waste before the work is done and before their transition into adulthood is complete.
Some of your colleagues have already stepped up. Leaders like Representative Ortitay and Senator Aument - the primary sponsors of HB 2674 and SB 1276 respectively - had the insight to see was is needed to begin to fix Act 66, and to commit to change. Leaders like Senators Corman, Martin, Mesnch, and Scavello - some of the original sponsors of Act 66 who have also sponsored SB 1276 - have the courage to recognize that more work is needed, And other sponsors of these bills have been ready to listen to their constituents. Are you willing to listen to us? Do you have the insight, the courage, and the commitment to act?
Please support the legislation needed. This includes supporting HB 2674 or - better yet - SB 1276, or encouraging your colleagues to fold language into other legislation. But you must act fast - this year's graduates are on the verge of being left behind. The future of Jacob, Margot, and more than one thousand other youths with significant disabilities depends on you.