Washington state discriminates against special-needs children who attend religious schools by not allowing them to access federally funded special services at school, writes guest columnist Michael Bindas. The Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction is considering changing the policy.

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SEPT. 3 will be a big day for educational liberty and children with special needs in the Evergreen State.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction will hold a public hearing in Olympia on a proposal to end Washington’s discriminatory ban on special-education services in religious schools. Ending the ban would be a major victory not only for children with disabilities, but also for the right of all parents to choose the schools that are best for their children.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Washington receives federal funds to provide special-education services to children with disabilities. The act requires Washington to spend a portion of these funds on services for children whose parents choose private, including religious, schools. The law encourages the state to provide the services at the point of learning — that is, in the child’s classroom — where they will be of most benefit to the child.

However, unlike the overwhelming majority of states, Washington bans these special-education services from the campuses of religious schools. While students at public and nonreligious private schools may receive services on-site, special-needs children at religious schools are forced to travel off-site to some “nonsectarian” location in order to access the help they need.

This policy not only stigmatizes an already vulnerable group of children; it often renders the services useless. What good, for example, is a hearing aid when the hearing-impaired student can access it only off-campus? She needs the service in the classroom.

Washington’s irrational and discriminatory policy thus forces an unpalatable choice on parents: forgo the services for which their child is eligible or forgo their right to educate their child in a religious school. That is a choice no parent should be forced to make.

Recognizing the harm Washington’s policy does to children and the Constitution, three courageous families with special-needs children — the DeBooms, Apodacas and Hamiltons — decided to stand up to the state and challenge its policy. In November 2008, they filed a federal lawsuit to vindicate their right to choose the school that is best for their children and not be punished for doing so. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent’s office announced it would reconsider its policy.

In July, after months of internal deliberation and receipt of public comment, that office published proposed regulations that, if adopted, will end the ban on special-education services at religious schools. The superintendent’s office will hold the public hearing on the proposed regulations in Olympia and has set an intended adoption date of Sept. 30. That day can’t come soon enough for the many children harmed by the current policy.

The superintendent’s office should be commended for its willingness to revisit its policy and encouraged to take the final step of burying it once and for all. Doing so would be in the best interests of the children the IDEA is designed to help and would respect the fundamental right of parents to direct the educational upbringing of their children.

After all, no parent should be forced to choose between her child’s physical needs and the school she believes is best for her child.

Michael Bindas is a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, which represents the DeBoom, Apodaca and Hamilton families in their challenge to Washington’s IDEA policy.