A REPORT released last month by the Joint Legislative and Audit Commission was highly critical of how many school divisions in Virginia are failing to comply with federal special education mandates—and how the Virginia Department of Education has also failed to provide adequate oversight.
“Federal law requires public schools to provide students with disabilities specially designed instruction and services to ensure that their education is appropriately ambitious in light of the student’s particular circumstances,” the report noted.
But JLARC found that a significant number of individualized education programs (IEPs) were missing critical information about students’ current level of academic performance, and a whopping 48 percent failed to include “academic or functional goals.”
Without knowing at what grade level their special ed student is performing, and what goals educators are working on with them, it’s impossible for parents to determine if any academic progress is being made toward reaching students’ full potential, the ultimate goal of all special ed programs.
And the fact that about 164,000 Virginia K–12 students (13 percent) were enrolled in special ed programs during the 2018–19 school year means that these institutional shortcomings are affecting a lot of families.
This was not the first time that VDOE was called out for not adequately overseeing special ed.
Last June, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs sent a letter to VDOE Superintendent James Lane pointing out that his own officials admitted that VDOE “had no procedure in place to follow up on any allegations of noncompliance [with federal law] that are not the subject of a formal complaint.”
But JLARC discovered that even when parents do make formal complaints that their children are not receiving legally mandated services, VDOE “does not ensure that non-compliance is rectified.” Instead, VDOE sends parents back to deal with the same IEP team that failed them in the first place.
The not-surprising result is that although high school graduation rates have increased for disabled students since 2008, they still remain 30 percent lower than graduation rates for their non-disabled peers, JLARC noted. And Black students with disabilities fare even worse.
The report also noted that families of disabled students are often not told that the applied studies diploma is not accepted at most institutions of higher learning, or that “decisions made early in a student’s K–12 experience could reduce the odds of obtaining a standard diploma … once an applied studies diploma track is chosen.”
As a result, “about 20 percent of Virginia students with disabilities graduate with a diploma that provides limited value for accessing future educational and career opportunities,” according to JLARC.
Not all special ed students can go on to college, but parents should not be kept in the dark about the future ramifications of choosing an applied studies diploma for their disabled children if they are capable of earning a standard diploma.
Although plans to help special ed students transition to adulthood must legally be included in their IEPs, “many transition plans reviewed by JLARC staff were of poor quality, and one-quarter of those reviewed did not include any specific transition services.”
All these problems are in addition to the educational setbacks during 2020 when students in Virginia were forced to try to learn online due to the coronavirus lockdowns. Although many local school systems have offered in-person lessons for special ed students several times a week, some parents say their children are not only falling behind their non-disabled peers, they are also losing key skills they’ve already mastered.
How long before they fall too far behind to have any reasonable hope of catching up? And more to the point, what is VDOE going to do about it?