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McShane: Don't cut funding for autism programs

McShane: Don't cut funding for autism programs

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Molly McShane

Molly McShane

By Molly McShane

McShane is director of Child Advocacy Pro Bono Project, at UVA Law School & Board Chair, Virginia Institute of Autism. She lives in Charlottesville.

When schools closed for in-person instruction in March, I, like many others, immediately felt panicked: how could our society meet the needs of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children, children with significant disabilities? Many severely autistic students are already regressing into behaviors that can harm themselves or others.

Of course, meeting the myriad needs of all of Virginia’s children during this pandemic has been challenging to say the least; meeting the needs of non-verbal youth with autism who have significant behavioral challenges in and out of the home or students with serious emotional disabilities is even more pressing.

Some of these children are served by special education Private Day Schools, like the Virginia Institute of Autism. Through a process governed by federal and state law, these students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams have determined that their needs cannot be met in local public schools. Private Day offers federally mandated free and appropriate public education and highly specialized instruction. Throughout the pandemic they have continued to deliver these critical IEP services.

Through the Children’s Services Act, the costs of private day placement are a shared responsibility between state general funds and local government matching funds, but it is the localities who contract with each provider. Localities pushing for differing reimbursement rates for the education delivered by private day schools depending on whether those services are delivered remotely or in person is unacceptable, especially while all schools are grappling with the challenges of the pandemic. To be clear, asking localities to honor their previously agreed upon rate for private day placement is not a new mandate or additional cost. It is fulfilling the promise to educate these students the way they deserve and the law requires. If our Commonwealth fails in its obligation to these children, the costs will be borne in the short term by their families but in the long term by all of us.

With many state and local stakeholders now turning their attention to the needs of individuals with disabilities, they can act to affect meaningful change.

What specifically can be done to help? To start, the Governor and legislators should support budget language during Special Session that will prohibit any further adjustment or cuts to contract rates during the 2020-21 school year.

We are in a global pandemic and should protect one of our most vulnerable populations.

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