What Deferment of Standard Diploma Means for Students with Disabilities
Updated: Jul 7, 2019
In the 2014-15 school year, the Florida legislature removed the special diploma option for students with disabilities who were entering ninth grade. This means that most students regardless of their disability will be placed on the standard diploma track with three different sub-tracks. Confused yet? Well, so are many parents of a child with a disability who must now navigate this new system along with all of the challenges that come with their child turning 18 and becoming a legal adult (See Guardian Advocacy Makes Florida Unique!).
There is no special diploma option for students with disabilities in Florida anymore
Specifically, the three standard diploma tracks are now as follows:
24-Credit Standard Diploma: option available to all students, including students with disabilities.
24-Credit Standard Diploma: option with academic and employment requirements, available only to students with disabilities.
24-Credit Standard Diploma: option available only to students with significant cognitive disabilities, who take access courses and the alternate assessment.
However, students with disabilities who receive a certificate of completion or GED and have not reached age 22, may still continue to receive their specified instruction and services, as long as they have an IEP that prescribes special education, transition planning, transition services, or related services through 21 years of age. Parents must declare an intent for their child to graduate with a certificate of completion during the transition planning process.
Note that students with significant cognitive disabilities can still be evaluated using alternative assessments.
Parents must now affirmatively defer receipt of the standard diploma to retain ESE services
The reason all of this matters is that the removal of the special diploma can have a significant impact on the educational rights of students with disabilities. The Florida statutes now require parents or students, in consultation with the IEP team, to affirmatively defer receipt of the standard diploma in order to continue receiving special education services from their school district. This new rule was enacted despite the fact that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Florida Department of Education (DOE) provides for exceptional student education (ESE) services until the age of 21.
Now, not only must parents affirmatively defer receipt of the standard diploma for their child with a disability, there is also a two-part requirement that has to be met for continuing ESE services:
The student must have an individual education plan (IEP) that prescribes special education, transition planning, transition services, or related services through age 21.
The student must be enrolled in an extended transition program which vary from district to district. The extended transition programs may consist of industry certification courses that lead to college credit, a collegiate high school program, courses necessary for a Scholar designation, or structured work-study, internship, or pre-apprenticeship programs.
Families and advocates should also be aware that any change to the high school graduation option specified in the student’s IEP must be approved by the parent(s) and is subject to verification for appropriateness by an independent reviewer selected by the parent. It seems as though the state legislature or DOE anticipated there would be confusion and eventually legal challenges to this rule change.
The IEP team should begin transition planning early and document the need for extended transition programs
The takeaway from this rule change is that parents will need to ensure that transition planning begins early and often. The deferment choice is expected to be made in the semester of the student's graduation year with a standard diploma. However, the IEP team should be addressing the deferment issue ahead of time and begin considering the best extended transition program(s) for the student. Parents should also discuss with their child the available options and implications of these different options to the extent possible.
The Florida regulations also require school districts do the following:
Review the benefits of deferring with the parent and the student, including continuation of educational and related services services.
Describe to the parent and the student, in writing, all of the services and programs available to students who defer.
Note the deferral decision on the IEP.
Provide a document for the parent to sign, or the student if over 18 and rights have transferred, that notes the decision and is separate from the IEP.
Inform the parent and the student, in writing, by January 30th of the year in which the student is expected to meet all graduation requirements that failure to defer releases the school district of the obligation to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE), that the deadline for acceptance or deferral is May 15th, and that failure to attend the graduation ceremony does NOT constitute deferral.
Again, students with disabilities who earn a standard diploma and do not defer are NOT eligible for any further ESE services from the school district, so it's especially critical that parents of students with significant cognitive disabilities consider deferring receipt of their child's standard diploma. The effect of this new policy is that ESE services have now become opt out by default unless parents (or students) actually opt in by deferring the student's receipt of the standard diploma.
As a result of these changes by the school districts, it will be more important than ever for the IEP team to ensure there is a thorough, well-documented record in the student's IEP of the need for extended transition services until the age of 21. The IEP team can and should begin the process of identifying the need for transition services as early as age 14, to make certain these services are in place by the time the student turns 16. All too often, this process is not happening properly for students with disabilities who need these vital services.
Ultimately, the transition to postsecondary education and career opportunities for students with disabilities must still align with the IDEA's central purpose which “emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." Nevertheless, it will be up to families with disabilities and their advocates to hold the schools to the spirit of this watershed civil rights law.