‘Devastating’ new report finds major problems with special education in Virginia

‘Devastating’ new report finds major problems with special education in Virginia
The Virginia Department of Education is headquartered in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. (Source: Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Shortcomings in both the quality and oversight of special education in Virginia put the commonwealth at odds with federal law and make it difficult — if not impossible — to determine how good students with disabilities are supported by their local school systems.

Those findings by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, presented at a meeting Monday, buttress long-held concerns from parents and special education advocates across Virginia. The lengthy report also mirrors many of the failures outlined in a June letter from the U.S. Department of Education, which found serious deficiencies in how the Virginia Department of Education monitored and responded to special education complaints.

Shortly after the agency issued its report, VDOE announced it was implementing a new model for monitoring and investigating special education compliance.

State Superintendent James Lane said the department “is looking forward to working alongside schools, teachers and families” to implement the new approach.

However, Callie Oettinger, a parent of a special education student in Fairfax, was furious, noting that it marked the third time in less than a year that an independent agency found problems with VDOE’s monitoring procedures for local school divisions.

And it was the second time that an oversight agency reported significant concerns over special education compliance in Virginia.

“If you look at Lane’s statement, he says he ‘applauds’ the findings in this report,” she said. “And he should be saying he’s embarrassed. This has been going on under his watch for years.”

‘Red flags’

Drew Dickinson, the project leader for the JLARC report, said at the meeting that “research indicates that outcomes for Virginia students with disabilities are improving.”

But “there’s still room for improvement,” he said, pointing specifically to “red flags” in student performance identified by the agency throughout the roughly year-long review process.

Those include lower graduation rates for students with disabilities and scores on state assessments that lag behind those of their non-disabled peers. The disparities are worse for Black students with disabilities and students with more severe needs.

JLARC analysts also found widespread problems with the quality of individualized education programs (better known as IEPs) at schools across the state. The tailored plans are foundational in establishing a student’s current level of academic performance, setting challenging goals and outlining the services needed to accomplish them.

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