The state says it’s fixing special education oversight in Virginia. Advocates wonder if it will be enough.

The state says it’s fixing special education oversight in Virginia. Advocates wonder if it will be enough.
The Virginia Department of Education is headquartered in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. (Source: Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

The Virginia Department of Education is quietly implementing changes in response to a federal report that found serious deficiencies in how the agency monitors and enforces compliance with special education law.

In a memo circulated to local school districts last month, state Superintendent James Lane wrote that the agency was revising its policies and procedures to implement “required actions” laid out in the June letter from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

That report found VDOE was, in many ways, failing to ensure that local school divisions were complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a 1975 federal law that ensures a “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities. It outlined more than half a dozen directives to “ensure that all of [the state’s] LEAs” —  local educational agencies — were in compliance with the law.

VDOE contested multiple aspects of the report in a 10-page letter from Samantha Hollins, the assistant superintendent of special education and student services — a response that was met with vehement disagreement by more than a dozen parents of special education students in Virginia. The agency was legally mandated to provide the federal government with a corrective plan, but VDOE spokesman Charles Pyle declined to confirm whether the department still disagreed with many of the federal agencies ' conclusions.

“As discussed above, VDOE is addressing the findings of the monitoring letter,” he wrote in an email on Thursday.

But advocates said it’s still unclear whether the policies outlined in the memo — which largely address internal processes within VDOE — will substantially change how parents experience Virginia’s special education complaint process. In July, multiple families told the Mercury the process was — at best — “unfriendly to parents.” At its worst, one parent described the state response as “hell.”

“I’m not sure how much difference this may make to parents who are on the ground on the front end of this process,” said Rachael Deane, legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program. “I think what advocates are wondering now is what VDOE is actually doing to address the imbalance of power between school divisions and parents when special education challenges arise.”

Part of Lane’s three-page memo outlines “general supervision and monitoring procedures” that VDOE “has established and will continue to implement” over local school divisions. Those include on-site comprehensive reviews at schools identified through the department’s own risk assessment data, according to the document, and a regular monitoring schedule for all school divisions that will require them to self-assess their compliance with special education laws. Even schools that report complete compliance will be “randomly selected for a desk/on-site monitoring visit to verify” those self-reports, according to the memo.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.