Special education troubles continue for Virginia

VDOE labeled ‘deficient’ in its efforts to curtail learning loss

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/16/2023, 6 p.m.
The Virginia Department of Education continues to shirk its responsibility to ensure students with mental and emotional disabilities secure a …
Ms. Williams

The Virginia Department of Education continues to shirk its responsibility to ensure students with mental and emotional disabilities secure a free, appropriate public education, or FAPE in educational jargon, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Nearly three years after finding VDOE was failing disabled students and their parents, the federal agency has determined that, despite some reform, VDOE is still not meeting the requirements of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, the federal law governing special education

In an eight-page letter issued Feb. 17 to VDOE, Valerie Williams, director of the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, issued notice that her office will be increasing its monitoring of the state’s management oversight of special education based on a flood of complaints and a staff review.

The Free Press reached out to VDOE, but has not received a response to the letter that arrived two weeks before Jillian Balow resigned as superintendent of public instruction, the top VDOE post.

VDOE has been under fire for years for its management of special education, and has been the subject of critical reports both from the U.S. DOE and the Virginia legislative watchdog, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

One key concern Ms. Williams mentioned is the learning loss that disabled students in Virginia experienced as a result of the pandemic. She stated that her office had issued guidance to assist states to deal with the problem. While some states took action, she stated, her office found the VDOE response “deficient.”

Ms. Williams noted that the U.S. DOE’s Office of Civil Rights two months ago upheld complaints against Fairfax County’s public school system after finding that the state’s largest school system “failed or could provide FAPE to thousands of qualified students with disabilities” in violation of federal law.

She expressed concern that the policy and practice failure that turned up in Fairfax was at least partially based on guidance from VDOE.

“Since the VDOE guidance was statewide and because (my office has received complaints from across the state about practices similar to those cited by OCR in Fairfax, (staff from this office will be assigned) to examine this matter.”

Her letter also noted that VDOE is still failing in its general supervisory responsibilities when it comes to ensuring that parents and children secure due process in contesting local de- cisions involving the individual education plans and that their complaints are resolved in a timely fashion.

She also noted that some VDOE regulations governing special education conflict with federal law. She also raised concern about the state education agency’s oversight of local school divisions’ special education programs after determining that the practices in at least five still unnamed school divisions violate federal rules and regulation.

Ms. Williams stated that members of her staff would be in Virginia in August or September to conduct another review to determine how well reforms of the programs the state enacted since 2020 are working and whether the state has begun installing procedures to ensure “the appropriate and effective investigation of complaints” and the speedy resolution of those are found to be accurate.