Faith-based educational coalition advocates for fair share
of government funds for special education students

By Dave Jolivet

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Federal funds earmarked for assisting Massachusetts students with special needs have been consistently absent from faith-based educational facilities for several years.

Following a years-long process of complaints, claims and appeals, a coalition of Catholic schools and Jewish day schools in Massachusetts, Project Access Coalition, earned a hard-fought victory in securing its fair share of the federal funding retroactive to 2014-18.

In 2004 the U.S. Department of Education introduced the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which each year allocates millions of dollars to states to be used to assist students with special needs, including those in private or religious schools.

Steve Perla, Superintendent of Schools of the Diocese of Fall River, who for more than a dozen years served as a lobbyist for faith-based educational rights with the Parents Alliance for Catholic Education (PACE) told The Anchor that several years ago it was discovered that Catholic and Jewish schools and other private institutions were not receiving their fair share of the monies. Along with representatives of other private educational institutions, “We had serious concerns that the state of Massachusetts wasn’t following the federal guidelines for distributing those funds.”

As an offshoot of PACE the four Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts and Jewish day schools formed Project Access Coalition to monitor the state’s actions and to seek a fair distribution of the federal funds in the Commonwealth.

“The collaborative approached the U.S. Department of Education and expressed our concerns,” said Perla. “From that, the U.S. Department of Education performed an audit and found that Massachusetts was indeed non-compliant when it came to distributing funds to non-public schools. The federal government in fact cited the Massachusetts Department of Education for non-compliance and for not having a proper system in place to let the different districts know how to allocate the funds.”

Project Access Coalition attempted to resolve the issue with the state Board of Education to no avail.

“We then filed a claim against the state Department of Education and 27 districts within the state who were out of compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

The matter was not resolved via that method, and the coalition took the appeal to the federal government’s Program Resolution Office which found the state and the 27 districts in non-compliance.

The state’s reaction to the federal decision was to offer extensive training within the districts and to closely monitor the funding in the future.

“We were not satisfied with the state’s response,” Perla told The Anchor. “There was just not enough substance in its remedy.”

In 2017 the coalition filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. “On October 15, the feast of the Assumption, we received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education indicating Massachusetts was found out of compliance, not only in the 27 districts mentioned in the complaint, but statewide. I could see Our Blessed Mother was watching over us.

“That was a big decision in our favor. The take away was that the state of Massachusetts had to re-write its policies and guidelines according to U.S. Department of Education standards and the state was required to go back to 2014 and recalculation the proportionate share for non-public schools from 2014-18.”

Perla said that could result in up to $100 million, but pointed out that the schools involved wouldn’t receive cash awards.

“What will happen is that the state will provide the non-public schools with assistance in professional development and/or direct services for those students who qualify for assistance.

“For instance the state will contract vendors or service-providers to come and offer students services such as speech therapy or occupational therapy and other services. This is very important because it will allow us to serve our kids with mild to moderate disabilities. It’s good for schools to provide services to all kids.”

The process is far from over at this time though. “We still have to settle with the state on the number of children since 2014 who were eligible for IDEA services. We estimate that roughly seven percent of our students need special education or related services; such as speech and occupational therapy. Once this is settled there will be additional services that they may be entitled to. This is a very important decision and it has major implications for kids in non-public schools who need services.”

Perla said that securing the non-public schools’ fair share of the federal funds is important because, unlike the separate state funds for special education, the services from federal funds can be provided at the eligible students’ schools.

“The state also offers assistance, but that assistance has to be provided on state properties, meaning the students have to leave their schools to receive the services, and their parents are burdened by transporting them to and from.”

While the future looks bright for the schools represented by Project Access Coalition, there are still some Massachusetts districts that are still in non-compliance.

But Perla was quick to point out that many diocesan schools have had a very good working relationship with some districts.

“I would like to commend Superintendent Matthew H. Malone from the Fall River School district,” said Perla. “We have had an extraordinary collaboration with Mr. Malone and his staff. We have a good working relationship with them and have ironed out things in the Fall River district.”

Perla added that many of the districts found in non-compliance were not given enough information from the state to correctly implement the IDEA funding.

Perla also mentioned the great bond among the members of the Project Access Coalition. “It’s so nice to work with such wonderful people and in a faith-based alliance. And in addition to the four dioceses and the Jewish day schools, we recently had the Association of Independent Christian Schools join the coalition.

“Because of the hard work of those in the coalition, last year’s state budget included $1 million for school nursing and a school health program.

“I would particularly like to give a shout out to State Senator Michael Rodrigues  from the First Bristol and Plymouth counties and the senate Ways and Means chair, and Rep. Patricia Haddad of the Fifth Bristol district, for their efforts and cooperation in helping us out.”

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts