A month ago the New Jersey State Legislature unanimously passed a bill that would offer 700 students with disabilities an additional year of high school to complete their “transitions” program that helps them establish plans for what to do after high school graduation. Advocates say this bill is “essential” to compensate for a year of lost learning, which hit special education students particularly hard.
When students with moderate to severe disabilities graduate from high school, parents often feel they are “falling off a cliff.” That’s because public schools must provide necessary therapies and individualized programs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act but all that mandated support falls away once students graduate. The additional year (which would cost $11.1 million, barely a rounding error in NJ’s school aid calculations) would let families find their next steps before they enter the bleak undertow of the NJ Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD).
Yet Senate Bill 2434, sits on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk as the students with disabilities who are aging out (age 21 in NJ) finish this pandemic year without any idea if they will have that additional year to prepare. The Governor’s Office and the NJ Department of Education say they have “no comment.” According to the Asbury Park Press, the state Department of Education “had other plans for the money and some policy advisors within the governor’s office are urging that the bill not be signed.”
“I have been hearing from people whose children have graduated or are graduating this week and the panic is mounting,” said Mercedes Witowsky, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities.
The Council’s Brenda Considine added,
The main voicemail box for families to call and leave a comment is full and we don’t know what to do. We are hearing there’s a lot of controversy at the governor’s office on whether or not to sign this. Kids are graduating as soon as next week and we need this thing signed fast.
One of the sponsors of the bill, Sen. Dawn Addiego, said, “It is crucial that the governor signs this legislation sooner, rather than later. These are our most vulnerable students who will have the most difficulty recuperating the knowledge and skills lost due to remote instruction. Those on the brink of aging out need to know before the end of the school year if they will be transitioning to adult programs or if they can return for full time instruction.”
The bill is supported by the NJ School Boards Association, NJEA, Education Law Center, SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, and the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities.
What awaits parents and students if forced to graduate without adequate preparation?
A huge mess. For months now the Facebook group Advocacy for Adults with Disabilities has been begging the Murphy Administration to treat their children equitably. (You can sign the petition here.) Currently day programs for adults with disabilities are forced to operate under much stricter COVID guidelines than, well, anywhere, so many are still closed or at partial capacity.
Meanwhile, families are hoping that the Legislature’s bill becomes a “priority” not only for their children but also for the Governor’s Office and the NJ Department of Education.