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Report: Virginia Failing at Special Education Oversight

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Recently, the Virginia Department of Education received a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs that found a lot of problems when families or advocates try to raise concerns about the special education system. (Archived Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A recently released federal report found numerous failures in how the Virginia Department of Education monitors and responds to complaints. Megan Pauly and Ian Stewart discussed the implications of their findings, and the state response.

Transcript:

PAULY: You’re listening to VPM News. Megan Pauly here, education reporter. I’m here today with Chesterfield County reporter Ian Stewart to talk about a recently released federal report that found numerous failures in how the Virginia Department of Education monitors and responds to complaints.  Hey Ian.

 STEWART: Hey Megan.

PAULY: Ian, last week, the Virginia Department of Education received a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs also known as O-S-E-P. Can you tell us what was in the report?

 STEWART: Sure. In a nutshell, OSEP found a lot of problems when families or advocates try to raise concerns about the special education system. There's a formal complaint process, but the report alleges the state sometimes "ignores credible allegations.”  There are a number of other issues, too. The report says hardly any on-site monitoring visits are being done by the state, only around 6 districts per year, out of the 132 school divisions in Virginia. 

Also, some districts weren’t paying for the outside evaluations that determine students' disabilities and what services they might need.  

All this info is in a 17-page letter released last Friday. It came over a year after federal officials spent two days interviewing various state VDOE staff. 

PAULY: Federal officials did the investigation because they received an unusually high number of complaints about VDOE. We don’t know the exact number because the U.S. Department of Education requires a public records request. But a representative told us that the volume and nature of issues warranted looking into.

And while the report doesn’t name names or districts it does detail a few specific complaints. And Ian, federal officials found that in one of these cases the state had actually informed a parent that they would no longer accept complaints from them, right?  

STEWART: That’s right. Federal officials found that the parent communicated with the state quite often. In reviewing emails dating back to 2018, they found this parent had filed at least two written state complaints alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also called IDEA. That’s the federal law that mandates schools provide services to kids with disabilities. 

The state is legally mandated to respond to any complaints within 60 days. VDOE also needs to issue a written decision on the complaint after investigating it. The report found the state often isn’t doing that. 

PAULY: So what happened with this parent’s complaints?

STEWART: According to the report, after receiving no response from the state, the parent refiled these same complaints several times to the state alleging noncompliance with IDEA requirements. And OSEP says they couldn’t find any response from the state to the parent. 

PAULY: So Ian, how has the Virginia Department of Education responded to the report?

STEWART: They were actually able to see a draft of the letter prior to its release. And they responded in a rebuttal letter saying that, quote  “OSEP has provided only vague information that leaves the VDOE responding to matters without the benefit of context.”

VDOE also argues that there are different types of complaints as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The agency writes that some of the complaints OSEP identified are considered insufficient in terms of “official complaints.”

In the end, VDOE basically argues that they do follow all the necessary federal guidelines. But they still have to submit documentation in 90 days demonstrating that they’re complying with changes federal officials have said are necessary. 

PAULY: Got it, thanks for the update Ian. 

STEWART: Sure, no problem. 

PAULY: We’re continuing to follow these important issues. If you are a parent of a child with special needs, and have filed a complaint - formal or informal - with VDOE, we want to hear from you. Send us an email at [email protected] or message us on social media at My VPM. You’re listening to VPM News.