Last week, I had the opportunity to go to MANSEF Advocacy Day in Annapolis, the first time I’ve ever availed myself of the opportunity.
MANSEF – the Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities – is the umbrella group for schools like the Monster’s, private schools that take students from the public school system who need more resources than the schools themselves can provide. (This is a key distinction that I constantly have to emphasize when I’m at various meetings. Yes, it’s a private school… but the city schools pay the tuition to send the Monster there, and he’s still legally a city school student.) Nonpublic special education facilities help the public education system fulfill their FAPE obligations under IDEA.
This is a very critical distinction, by the by. I feel like people often forget that there are children who the public schools can’t help, and for whom a separated public-school environment’s not appropriate… and those people include our legislators in Annapolis, who are part of the budgetary process for our schools. (Baltimore gets the vast majority of its schools’ budget from the state.) So once a year, early in the session, MANSEF organizes an advocacy day, where parents and students can go to visit their legislators and try to remind them why we need their support.
We started the day with a short briefing in the building that houses the Delegates’ offices, talking about what MANSEF does, a few stories by parents and students about their experiences with nonpublic placement, and a quick lesson on how to talk to legislators or their staff. This included discussion of a couple of critical bills that are coming up this term, including HB174, which involves giving parents more rights to grant or withhold consent for changes on IEPs, and HB331, which addresses restraint and seclusion for students in special education. (HB174 is a keen interest of mine – for those who don’t know, in Maryland, you have very limited options once you’ve signed your child’s first IEP, most of which involve hiring attorneys and going through the due process mechanisms.)
In my case, I wasn’t visiting my own legislators – the other parents from the Monster’s school were also going to visit our one delegate (another was unavailable, and we currently have no state senator and a vacant delegate seat). Instead, I was visiting the offices of a state senator and a delegate from a neighboring district, both of whom I know.
In the case of the senator, I met with his chief of staff, a very pleasant young woman who didn’t know much about the topic, but was keenly interested when I started talking about the inequities in the system, and how nonpublic facilities help to prepare children for the broader world (and hopefully out of the judicial system, which is an area the senator is interested in). My visit with the delegate was more productive and less – more because I met with the delegate himself, and we have a rapport, and less because… well, it was the day for the State of the State, and our visit got cut short so he could walk down for the speech, though we had a good conversation on the walk down about HB174.
I think, if I do this again next year, I’ll take the Monster with me. As much as he might not be as attentive as I might hope… I think having him with me might make a lot more of an impact. (The other parent I drove down with had her daughter with her.) But definitely, it was eye-opening, in the sense that our legislators don’t necessarily have a good grasp on how big the demand is for special education, how few rights parents actually have in our state, and how we maneuver through the system.
So like everything else… it’s clear we still have a lot of education to do.