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"Cadillac-Style" Education Law OK'd: Markell Signs Bill Protecting Students with Disabilities

By Logan B. Anderson
Delaware State News

DOVER (June 2010) — Gov. Jack A. Markell signed a bill into law on Thursday that protects the educational rights of children with disabilities in the First State.

The legislation was born of the realization by advocates and lawmakers that some school districts were using a decision by the 6th Circuit Court of appeals in making decisions regarding education for special-needs students.  In 1993, the court ruled in an oft quoted decision that deems children are not entitled to a, "Cadillac style education; they are only entitled to a serviceable Chevrolet style education."  At a signing ceremony in the governor's office in Legislative Hall, Gov. Markell said the legislation, "Deals with an issue of fairness and incredible importance to so many parents, families and children around the state."

Bill SigningHouse Bill 328, sponsored by Rep. S. Quinton "Quinn" Johnson, D-Middletown, and Sen. David P. Sokola, D-Newark, requires schools, school districts, courts and administrative tribunals to use the definition of "free and appropriate education" with respect to disabled children. The law will require Delaware schools to provide individualized, needs-based services for students with disabilities. 

The legislation also bars all state entities from using language in dealing with parents that suggests students are entitled to any benefits less than those spelled out in the bill.  "This bill will send a clear, unequivocal message to our school districts that children with disabilities have the same right to learn, the same right to fulfill their potential, as other students," Lt. Gov. Matthew P. Denn said.  Gov. Markell pointed out during the ceremony, that since being elected Lt. Gov. Denn has worked to champion issues dealing with children in Delaware.  Advocates and students from around the state came to Dover on Thursday to witness the bill's signing.

"House Bill 328 opens the door of opportunity for me to walk through. With hard work, teachers who teach me the way I learn and the belief that I can give back to society, kids like me will have a fair shot at a good life," Chris Coulston, eighth-grader at P.S. DuPont Middle School in Wilmington, said.  "Thank you, Lieutenant Governor Denn, Representative Johnson and Senator Sokoloa for leading us to this day. You've helped a lot of students in the state of Delaware."  "School was not easy, and I worked hard and needed help a lot. We had many meetings to talk about what I needed and we had to fight all the time to get the school to help me. All kids should go to school and be happy and graduate. Thank you for signing House Bill 328 to make this happen."

Signing with Delaware Partners GradsTara Bustard, Middletown High School graduate, said.  Rep. Johnson's son, who is deaf, came with him to the signing ceremony — his wife, Julie, came too as their son's interpreter.  "We must raise the bar of standards for these children. By raising the bar and ensuring that in fact all children are receiving a world-class education, we will be ensuring that more students with special needs will graduate and will be productive, taxpaying citizens of our society," he said.  "These individuals will be citizens that are less likely to need financial assistance and state or federal services. It is our responsibility, as stated in the mission statements of school districts, to provide an education that does not limit students' ability to achieve success and allows them to meet their full potential."  "We should actively work against double standards in education that leave the handicapped at a disadvantage," Sen. Sokola said. "But that's especially true in today's increasingly competitive global economy where we need to make sure that everyone is maximizing their potential." 

Rep. Johnson and Lt. Gov. Denn both said the practice of using that ruling to determine any student's education path was unacceptable; thus the legislation was born.  Delaware resides in the jurisdiction of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.  The 3rd Circuit Court has ruled schools should use the definition of "free and appropriate education" with respect to determining a student's educational path.  The definition as defined by House Bill 328 means special education that is specially individualized to meet the unique needs of the handicapped person.  "You are all truly trailblazers and on behalf of the governor's Advisory Council of Extraordinary Citizens, I want to thank you for your support on House Bill 328. Although many schools are doing the right thing, some are not, and this bill will make our advocacy and the advocacy of parents easier," Wendy Strauss of the Governor's Advisory Council of Exceptional Citizens said.