NJ disability community fears extra year of schooling bill has stalled at Murphy's desk
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A bill offering an extra year of schooling for students with disabilities appears to have stalled out on Gov. Phil Murphy's desk, raising fears among advocates who say the measure is essential after a year of education lost to the coronavirus.
The legislation, approved unanimously by state legislators, would authorize a one-time extension of classes for as many as 700 students set to age out of programs this spring, at an estimated cost of up to $11.1 million.
It still needs Murphy's signature to become law, however. The governor's office declined to comment this week, but advocates for New Jerseyans with disabilities said some in the administration have other priorities for federal stimulus dollars.
The state Education Department "had other plans for the money and some policy advisors within the governor's office are urging that the bill not be signed," said Brenda Considine of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities. "Others are saying, 'You have to sign this in an election year.' But there is an internal conflict about whether or not to sign the bill."
Supporters say time is running out. School graduations are underway and families and educators are drafting individualized education programs (IEPs) that guide learning for the coming school year. Students who would age out of the programs need to know if they'll be heading back to class or have to find jobs or other support.
“I have been hearing from people whose children have graduated or are graduating this week and the panic is mounting,” said Mercedes Witowsky, the council's executive director.
Advocates said they'd been calling Murphy's office frantically since the legislation arrived on his desk Thursday but reached only an unanswered phone line and a full voicemail box.
The bipartisan bill, S-3434, aims to ease the shift into adult services by giving students with disabilities an extra year to explore work and therapy programs they would normally be ineligible for after turning 21. Even in normal times the transition is rough enough that families, advocates and educators refer to it as “falling off a cliff.”
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Schools try to ease the transition with programs that teach life skills and provide job training. The pandemic, however, eliminated or curtailed access to those resources over the last year.
“It has become clear that students have fallen behind as a result of this prolonged absence of in-person learning," said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, a Democrat from Voorhees and one of the bill's sponsors. "Among the most profoundly interrupted have been our students with special needs."
“It is crucial that the governor signs this legislation sooner, rather than later," added Sen. Dawn Addiego, D-Medford and another sponsor. "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.”
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Murphy's press secretary, Alyana Alfaro Post, declined to comment on pending legislation or on advocates' attempts to reach the administration. Michael Yaple, an Education Department spokesman, also declined to comment.
If signed into law, local school boards would be required to provide education and related services listed in this year’s individualized education programs in the coming school year.
Witowsky estimates about 700 students would be eligible for the extension, although not all are expected to apply. In 2019, 597 people with disabilities aged out of local school districts, according to the state DOE.
The cost per pupil is estimated to be about $15,800, according to Considine. That would amount to $11.1 million statewide if all students returned in the fall, but much or all of the expense is expected to come out of federal coronavirus aid, according to advocates.
It's not clear what other programs are in competition for the money, Considine said.
“The main voicemail box for families to call and leave a comment is full and we don’t know what to do," she said. "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."
The legislation also won support from the Education Law Center and SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, along with the Council on Developmental Disabilities. They called on Murphy to quickly sign the bill.
Despite initial concerns over funding, the New Jersey School Boards Association also supports the measure, said spokesperson Janet Bamford.
“While supporting its intent, NJSBA raised several concerns about the bill," the group said in its March newsletter. "However, those concerns have now been mitigated because the initiative will be funded through federal funds .... Any remaining expenses of local districts will be paid for by the state through the Property Tax Relief Fund."
The New Jersey Education Association, the union representing teachers and other school support staff, also backs the bill, said its spokesperson, Steven Baker.
Gene Myers is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.