JLARC Releases Report on K-12 Special Education

December 18, 2020

Members of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) were briefed by Commission staff on December 14 on the results of an extensive review of K-12 Special Education approved in 2018. JLARC staff was directed to review the effectiveness of Virginia’s special education programs, with particular attention to spending trends, processes to identify services for children who may have a disability or developmental delay, performance of programs and services for children with disabilities, and other factors. JLARC staff made 27 recommendations to improve the quality of K-12 special education, including legislative action by the General Assembly to direct the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) to identify improvements to student transition planning, to increase transparency of the Individualized Education Program (IEP), and to increase monitoring of and support for local school divisions.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public schools are required to provide students with disabilities specially designed instruction and services to ensure their right to a “free and appropriate public education.” Furthermore, in the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the court held that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” and that individualized education programs (IEPs) must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” In the 2018-19 school year, about 164,000 K-12 students were enrolled in special education, about 13 percent of Virginia’s total student population.

Though IDEA governs each state’s administration of special education services, and VDOE is responsible for supervising and providing guidance to local administration, local school divisions are responsible for, and have substantial discretion providing special education services, to include:

  • Identifying students who may need special education services;
  • Making eligibility determinations;
  • Developing and implementing each eligible student’s IEP;
  • Placing and supporting students in the least restrictive environment appropriate for their needs;
  • Providing and coordinating needed services for students; and
  • Monitoring student progress.

In FY 2019, $2.56 billion was spent on special education costs in Virginia. The majority of this funding (69%) was comprised of local funds, while Virginia contributed 19%, and the federal government contributed 11%. Though it accounts for 15% of total K-12 spending in Virginia, localities paying the majority of the cost for special education services is consistent with K-12 education spending in Virginia overall, in which Virginia localities invested $4.1 billion above the required local effort to fund the Standards of Quality in FY 2019. Unfortunately, both the federal and state share of funding for special education has decreased since FY 2010, by 30 percent and 13 percent respectively, while local funding has grown by 29 percent.

After analyzing a decade’s worth of student-level data, surveying parents and local special education directors, and reviewing complaints submitted to VDOE by parents, JLARC staff concluded that although graduation rates and tests have improved among students with disabilities, they remain much lower than students without disabilities. From 2008 to 2018, the graduation rate for students with disabilities went from 38% to 61%, and the gap between students with and without disabilities went from 43 points to 30 points.

IEP designs and outcomes are not consistent and can vary greatly by school division and region. According to JLARC, about one-third of a sample of IEPs reviewed by JLARC staff lacked a description of the student’s academic or functional needs, and one-quarter did not describe the effect of the disability on the student’s educational performance. JLARC’s review of IEPs found that about half (48 percent) lacked academic or functional goals. This data coupled with use of the “applied studies diploma” could lead to disparities of outcomes among special education students.

The long-standing shortage of special-education teachers persists, forcing many school divisions to rely on provisionally licensed or long-term substitute teachers. Special education has been identified by VDOE as a top three critical teaching shortage area since it began reporting shortages in 2003. Divisions throughout the state are, on average, three times more likely to hire provisionally licensed special education teachers than provisionally licensed teachers in other subjects. Furthermore, not enough students are graduating from Virginia colleges and universities with special education credentials to meet the demand in open positions.

The report recommended the following legislative actions:

  • Direct VDOE to conduct a targeted review, in the near term, of the transition sections of student IEPs to identify improvements needed to student transition planning, and direct VDOE to develop a robust statewide plan for improving transition planning for students with disabilities.
  • Require school divisions to provide a draft IEP to parents at least two business days in advance of the IEP team meeting, but only if a draft IEP is developed in advance of the meeting.
  • Direct VDOE and the Board of Education to develop and implement statewide criteria for the applied studies diploma and require local school divisions to more fully explain the limitations of this diploma to families.
  • Direct the Board of Education to review and update regulations governing K–12 teacher preparation programs to require that graduates are proficient in teaching students with disabilities and require teachers seeking license renewal to complete training in instructing students with disabilities.
  • Direct the Board of Education to review and update regulations governing administrator preparation programs to require that graduates demonstrate comprehension of key aspects of special education.
  • Direct VDOE to develop and maintain a data-driven statewide strategic plan for recruiting and retaining special education teachers.
  • Direct VDOE to revise its handling of special education complaints to require that school divisions carry out corrective actions that fully and appropriately remedy any found instances of school non-compliance.
  • Direct VDOE to develop and implement a robust plan to improve the effectiveness of its supervision and monitoring of special education.

VACo supports enhancing local capacity to serve children with high-level needs in the least restrictive environment, including regional special education programs. VACo supports local flexibility in the structure of such programs.

The full report is available here. JLARC’s staff presentation may be found at here.

VACo Contact: Jeremy R. Bennett

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