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Educators, Advocates Fear New Standards Could Keep Students With Disabilities From Graduating

Educators and advocates are speaking out about proposed changes to Maine’s law on proficiency-based diplomas. At a public hearing on Monday, they said new rules proposed by the state Department of Education may violate federal law and could keep many students with disabilities from graduating.

The new rules involve changes to Maine’s law on proficiency-based diplomas. The law says that by 2021, students will need more than just a set number of credits in high school in order to graduate. Instead, they’ll need to be “proficient” in certain subjects like math and English.

But at a public hearing in Augusta on Monday, educators said the new proposed rules could harm students with disabilities.

“I think there are students who currently get a diploma under our system, who will not be getting diplomas,” says Jill Adams, executive director of the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, the professional organization that represents the state’s special education administrators.

Adams says currently, teams of parents and educators work together to create individualized graduation standards for many students with disabilities. But under the proposed state rules, she says this would no longer be allowed.

Under the rules, every student, including those with disabilities, would need to reach rigorous academic standards in order to graduate. And Adams says that high standard would be too high for many students with disabilities.

“That’s more or less what you’re going to be telling that student,” she says. “Some of those students don’t even want to stay through 18. We’re now going to push them through 20 and say, ‘You might not get a diploma.’“

These rules may also violate federal law, as well. Eric Herlan, an attorney with Drummond Woodsum specializing in special education law, says the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act lets local teams determine the best way for a student to transition from school to adulthood.

But at the public hearing, Herlan told the department that the proposed rules would run counter to that.

“They are going to be denied, really, the one thing that we give kids who go to high school. That’s a diploma,” Herlan said. “And that’s erecting a wall that just doesn’t need to be erected.”

Carrie Woodcock is the executive director of the Maine Parent Federation, which provides support to parents of children with disabilities. She says that with the amount of work students put in from kindergarten through 12th grade, they should receive a diploma instead of an alternate document like a “certificate of completion.”

She says she hopes the state will create a pathway for students with disabilities to get their diploma in the future.

“These kids are in school for 12 or 14 years,” Woodcock says. “It can’t be an all-or-nothing model. There’s got to be some sort of alternative pathway for achieving some sort of diploma for the school system.”

A DOE spokesperson says the department still needs to “process” the hearing testimony before answering any questions. The state will accept comments on the proposed rules until Sept. 8.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

This story was originally published Aug. 14, 2017 at 5:23 p.m. ET.