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Officials say Virginia must improve disability services for students

A large building on top of a parking deck. The building is primarily constructed out of concrete, but has rows of glass windows up each of its four faces. It is a sunny day
Crixell Matthews
VPM News
The James Monroe Building in downtown Richmond serves as headquarters for the Virginia Department of Education. Federal officials say VDOE fails to provide required services for students with disabilities.

The federal Office of Special Education Programs says the state is violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Federal officials continue to find the Virginia Department of Education out of compliance with multiple requirements outlined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which ensures students with disabilities are provided a “free appropriate public education.”

In a February letter Valerie Williams, director of the federal Office of Special Education Programs, outlined several concerns to the department, including that “the State does not have procedures and practices that are reasonably designed to enable the State to exercise general supervision over all educational programs for children with disabilities administered within the state.”

She also stated, "OSEP is concerned that Virginia's leadership and guidance" in providing services to make up for those that students with disabilities did not receive during the COVID-19 pandemic "has been deficient and may have led to noncompliance by school districts."

Williams added the state fails to provide a fair process for students and families who believe they have been denied services to resolve complaints. The department “does not ensure that it resolves every complaint” and doesn’t have a process in place to ensure timely resolution of those complaints they do address, according to the February OSEP letter.

These issues aren’t a surprise to education advocate Rachael Deane, chief executive officer at Voices for Virginia’s Children. For years, she worked as an education attorney helping families navigate the special education system.

And she said the problems the letter raised “are consistent with the experiences of many of my clients,” as well as Deane's own experience navigating the system as a parent.

During the pandemic, Deane realized her third-grade son needed to be evaluated for disability services. Even though he ultimately received them, she said navigating the process was difficult — even with her years of experience advocating on behalf of other families and her training as an attorney familiar with this area of law.

“It was difficult just at the school level to elevate the needs of my child to have them taken seriously. It was difficult to have the IEP [Individualized Education Plan] team come together and agree that he needed services,” Deane said. “I had to really push to get a plan in place. And eventually, I had to draft long formal emails and try to persuade the school that I knew what I was talking about — and that my child's needs really did need to be recognized.”

When there’s a disagreement about what services a student needs, Deane said it’s difficult to navigate the state resolution process — which she said has been a problem for years even before the federal government got involved in 2020.

During the complaint resolution process, Deane said the state education department has often re-characterized or mischaracterized what issues need to be addressed.

“It is supposed to be a process that is accessible and transparent for parents to use and in many cases, it is not,” Deane said. “Timelines are not adhered to. Parents are often left in situations where there's a fundamental power imbalance.”

In a January letter, OSEP's director Williams threatened to pull federal grant funds from the state if the education department does not comply with federal law. Chad Stewart, policy analyst for the Virginia Education Association, said he is worried about the threat, adding it’s one of several “very serious ‘nuts-and-bolts governance issues’” that have gone unresolved during Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration.

But he said there isn’t a simple solution to resolving all of the systemic problems facing students with disabilities in Virginia. Stewart said what’s really needed is a drastic overhaul of the current system along with a significant increase in funding to better serve students with disabilities.

“I think it's part and parcel of a system that's just been significantly underfunded for more than a decade now after the cuts from the Great Recession,” Stewart said. “We have less teachers going into the field [of special education]. We have more teachers leaving the field, and the trend is only going in one direction for both of those. And so we don't have a recipe for really making our system that much better anytime in the near future.”

Special education has been identified as a critical teaching shortage area in Virginia for the past two decades. As a result, school districts have relied on underprepared teachers to fill gaps in special education teaching positions, according to a 2020 JLARC report.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education did not respond to questions about how the state is addressing specific issues raised in the February letter.

The federal findings come despite the VDOE’s efforts to expand "criteria for investigating complaints,” during the 2021-22 school year, per a press release about the state’s rating of “meets requirements” on a federal scorecard comparing outcomes and compliance data for special education systems across all states.

According to VDOE spokesperson Charles Pyle, the commonwealth has received this "Meets Requirements" rating for 11 consecutive years — which he pointed out is the highest rating available.

Kimberly Richey, deputy superintendent for the school quality division, told state Board of Education members last week that VDOE is “working on a written response” to the February OSEP letter. She said she’d have a copy to board members “very soon.”

Update, March 28: This article has been updated to include further comment from the Virginia Department of Education.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.