As if it’s not bad enough that the Massachusetts Constitution still includes amendments rooted in the anti-Catholic bigotry of the 19th century, we now learn that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is using the amendments to deny hundreds of millions of federal dollars’ worth of special education services to students who attend private and religious schools.

To those of us who have advocated for special needs children and fought for the poor and needy in a state that prides itself on the prowess of its educational system, this is egregious.

Each year, the federal government allocates billions of dollars to states through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For the current fiscal year, the Commonwealth received $255.5 million.

States apportion the money to public school districts, each of which are supposed to determine the “proportionate share” of federal money that should be used to provide special education services to eligible private and religious school students with disabilities who attend private schools located within that school district.

Yet Massachusetts has long flouted the law, apparently unaware that federal law supersedes state law if the two conflict. Massachusetts asserts that state and locally funded special education services to private school students are more generous than those provided to them under federal law. The Commonwealth uses this blanket claim to argue that the special education needs of private school students in Massachusetts are being adequately met.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Federal civil rights law requires services to be provided onsite at private schools unless there is a compelling reason to offer them elsewhere, but Massachusetts claims that providing federally funded special education services onsite at private schools would violate the anti-aid amendments to the state constitution that prohibit public aid to private schools.

The practical result of Massachusetts in effect turning a blind eye to federal law is that private and religious school students therein with disabilities have long lacked reasonable access to the services that federal law affords to them and for which federal dollars pay. Private and religious school students who are entitled to federally-funded special education services have no real option other than going to a public school in the town where they live to receive those services.

Imagine a student living in Sharon who attends a private school in Brookline. The student would have to travel to receive services, meaning s/he would miss considerable school time and parents would have to take significant time off from work to transport him or her.

In 2007, the Parents Alliance for Catholic Education and the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston proposed amending Massachusetts’ special education regulations to allow private and religious school students to receive services at their schools. The services would be delivered at a neutral location, defined as “any room or space on the grounds of private schools that are devoid of any religious symbolism.” They even went so far as to recommend that the rooms be used exclusively for special education, but the Commonwealth still rejected the proposal.

A coalition of Catholic and Jewish schools then met with senior Massachusetts education officials over a two-year period, but the meetings yielded no change.

In 2017, a broader private school coalition filed a series of complaints with the state. The complaints demonstrated that as many as 16 percent of private school students may have qualified for federally funded special education services, but only about 1 percent were actually receiving them. The Commonwealth proposed no effective remedy.

Last fall the coalition appealed to the U.S. Secretary of Education, claiming that over 12 years, between $96 million and $290 million of federal funds allocated to Massachusetts’ school districts should have been used to serve private school students.

Let’s hope that the federal government cuts the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education down to size and ends the reprehensible practice of denying federally funded special education services to the overwhelming majority of private school students who qualify for them. In this country, all children deserve an equal opportunity to attain a hope-filled future.

The Rev. Tom Olson, left, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and co-author of “No IDEA: How Massachusetts Blocks Federal Special Education Funding for Private Religious School Students,” published by Pioneer Institute. Ray Flynn served as the mayor of Boston and ambassador to the Vatican.


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