Florida Sen. Shevrin Jones has joined Rep. Allison Tant in filing a bill for the 2022 Legislative Session aimed at giving schools, parents and faculty more time to assess whether a child needs federally funded special services and programs classified as Exceptional Student Education (ESE).
Jones, of West Park, this month filed SB 236, a companion to HB 15, which Tant filed in the House July 21. Both bills would extend Florida’s cutoff for ESE assessment from age 5 to age 9, or when a child completes second grade, whichever comes first.
Florida law provides that children who need tailored instruction and services in school — from gifted programs to curricula for children with autism spectrum disorder and a range of intellectual, developmental and learning disabilities — are considered “exceptional students.”
The classification opens students to an array of federally funded, educationally appropriate ESE programs and services for kids age 3-21.
But unlike federal law, which allows a child to be assessed for ESE through age 9, Florida’s age cutoff is 5, when many students are just beginning classes.
By so severely limiting the assessment and classification period, Florida is needlessly disadvantaging countless students, Tant, of Tallahassee, told Florida Politics.
“Right now, a child could come to school for the very first time in kindergarten at age 5 starting out behind and then have no label or a label that doesn’t work or support the child,” she said. “My bill would help the educators, administrators and the Department of Education to have the time to really determine what the child’s needs are, where the child is … and, in the meantime, they’re not just cut off from help.”
Tant experienced the issues Florida’s current age rule creates firsthand. Her son started pre-kindergarten developmentally behind, she said, and he could have missed out on ESE programs that since proved pivotal.
“He was so lost,” she said. “It was like he had a bag over his head.”
Fortunately, he had a teacher who stepped up and helped him get the services he needed, she said. But thousands of Florida students aren’t so lucky.
The problem disproportionately affects children with autism, which can’t be diagnosed solely through genetic testing. That means the more time teachers, school staff and parents have to observe and work with a child, the more likely they are to correctly identify that child’s needs and match them with appropriate programs and services.
Once a student is cleared for ESE courses and services, schools can access federal dollars set aside specifically for them. For the 2019-20 school year, Florida’s guaranteed federal ESE allocation was $1.09 billion.
“Once a child is classified as ESE, federal funding kicks in,” Tant said. “That’s when this is really going to help the children.”
Jones called Tant’s bill — which she filed with with bipartisan co-introducers Kristen Arrington of Kissimmee, Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, Christine Hunschofsky of Parkland and Susan Valdés of Tampa — a “much needed” piece of legislation.
“We should strive to support and sustain the educational structures and practices of ESE to be inclusive of all students of all abilities, and to empower them to become responsible, productive citizens in today’s global society,” said Jones, the vice chair of the Senate Committee on Education. “Each student must be welcomed, valued, and given access to rigorous teaching and appropriately supported to access the general education curriculum. SB 236 will do just that.”
The 2022 Legislative Session begins Jan. 11. The House and Senate began pre-Session committee meetings last week. Their next set of meetings is set for Oct. 11-15.