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Feds identify ‘significant’ ongoing concerns with Virginia special education

After failing to meet federal requirements to support students with disabilities in 2020, the Virginia Department of Education will remain under further review by the federal government after continuing to fall short in monitoring and responding to complaints against school districts, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

Virginia Mercury

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By Nathaniel Cline

After failing to meet federal requirements to support students with disabilities in 2020, the Virginia Department of Education will remain under further review by the federal government after continuing to fall short in monitoring and responding to complaints against school districts, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

“We have significant new or continued areas of concerns with the State’s implementation of general supervision, dispute resolution, and confidentiality requirements” of IDEA, stated the Feb. 17 letter from the Office of Special Education Programs.

The U.S. Department of Education first flagged its concerns in a June 2020 “Differentiated Monitoring and Support Report” on how Virginia was complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, following a 2019 visit by the Office of Special Education Programs.

IDEA, passed in 1975, requires all students with disabilities to receive a “free appropriate public education.”

The Virginia Department of Education disputed some of the federal government’s findings in a June 19, 2020 letter.

Samantha Hollins, assistant superintendent of special education and student services, wrote that verbal complaints “are addressed via technical assistance phone calls to school divisions” and staff members “regularly work to resolve parent concerns” by providing “guidance documentation” and acting as intermediaries between school employees and parents.

However, some parents and advocates say systemic problems in how the state supports families of children with disabilities persist. At the same time, a June 15, 2022 state report found one of Virginia’s most critical teacher shortage areas is in special education.

“Appropriate policies and procedures for both oversight and compliance, and their implementation, are crucial to ensuring that children with disabilities and their families are afforded their rights under IDEA and that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is provided,” said the Feb. 17 letter from the Office of Special Education Programs.

While the U.S. Department of Education wrote that it believes the Virginia Department of Education has resolved some of the problems identified in 2020, including resolving complaints filed by parents and creating a mediation plan, it said it has identified “new and continued areas of concern” and intends to continue monitoring Virginia’s provision of services for students with disabilities.

Among those are ongoing concerns over the state’s complaint and due process systems that “go beyond the originally identified concerns” originally found. The Office of Special Education Programs writes it has concluded Virginia “does not have procedures and practices that are reasonably designed to ensure a timely resolution process” for due process complaints.

The department also said it has concerns over the practices of at least five school districts that are inconsistent with IDEA’s regulations.

The decision comes after the U.S. Department of Education announced in November that Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school district, failed to provide thousands of students with disabilities with the educational services they were entitled to during remote learning at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virginia is also facing a federal class-action lawsuit over claims that its Department of Education and Fairfax County Public Schools violated the rights of disabled students under IDEA.

Parents involved in the case said the Virginia Department of Education and Fairfax school board “have actively cultivated an unfair and biased” hearing system to oversee challenges to local decisions about disabled students, according to the suit.

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said in an email that “VDOE continues to work with our federal partners to ensure Virginia’s compliance with all federal requirements, as we have since the ‘Differentiated Monitoring and Support Report’ was issued in June 2020.”

The federal government said if Virginia could not demonstrate full compliance with IDEA requirements, it could impose conditions on grant funds the state receives to support early intervention and special education services for children with disabilities and their families.

Last year, Virginia received almost $13.5 billion in various grants linked to IDEA, according to a July 1, 2022 letter to former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, who resigned on March 9.

James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, blasted Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration after the findings were released.

“While the Youngkin administration has been busy waging culture wars in schools, his administration has failed to meet basic compliance requirements with the U.S. Department of Education for students with disabilities,” Fedderman said. “This failure threatens our federal funding for students with disabilities and is a disservice to Virginia families who need critical special needs support.”

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