Federal Government Investigates if Massachusetts Special Education System Violates Legal Requirements
Concerns raised by families have prompted the federal government to initiate a comprehensive evaluation of Massachusetts' special education system. The inquiry questions the adequacy of support for students with disabilities and examines whether the state exercises proper oversight over both public schools and its network of private special education institutions.
According to a letter dated September 29 obtained by WBUR, the U.S. Department of Education has directed the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to submit a range of documents within 60 days. These documents are expected to shed light on how the state monitors key special education programs, with a particular focus on the capabilities of approximately 100 private special education schools in addressing the specific needs of attending students. These schools receive public funding to educate students whose needs cannot be met by their district schools.
The federal scrutiny of DESE follows months of concerns raised by advocacy groups, parents, and school district personnel. These stakeholders have contended that the state has failed to adequately investigate complaints about insufficient education for students with disabilities. State education departments are tasked with overseeing local school districts to ensure compliance with special education laws and rectifying any identified issues.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged that potential issues related to the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act had been brought to their attention at the state and school district levels in Massachusetts. This scrutiny comes shortly after the federal government had recognized Massachusetts as one of 22 states meeting the requirements of the federal law for the 2021-2022 school year.
DESE intends to provide a comprehensive response to the federal inquiry, emphasizing its commitment to ensuring that schools and districts deliver high-quality special education services to students with disabilities. Federal law mandates that school districts provide a "free and appropriate public education" to students with disabilities and develop and implement individualized education programs (IEPs) for these students.
Concerns expressed by parents in Massachusetts over challenges in proving that their child was denied appropriate educational services have been a longstanding issue. Advocacy groups like SPEDWatch have encouraged parents to report concerns to the federal government. The federal letter specifically sought information about how Massachusetts settles disputes over noncompliance with special education laws, addressing concerns about the time it takes to resolve complaints and the criteria used to make decisions.
Diana Santiago, a senior attorney with Massachusetts Advocates for Children, expressed hope that the federal letter would prompt a thorough examination of the state's existing system and the necessary changes to address its shortcomings. The federal government's letter also highlighted complaints about private special education schools overseen by the state, questioning the adequacy of monitoring and placement practices, as well as concerns about the rewriting of individualized education programs (IEPs) based on available resources rather than the child's specific needs. This level of federal intervention is considered unusual, emphasizing the gravity of the issues raised by advocates and parents in Massachusetts.
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