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Massachusetts: Feds investigating public special ed system, 100 private special schools

Oct 5, 2023, WBUR: Feds launch inquiry into whether Mass.' special education system fails to comply with law
Citing concerns from families, the federal government is launching a review of the state’s special education system. It is questioning if Massachusetts adequately supports students with disabilities, and whether the state provides proper oversight of public schools or its network of private special education schools.

In a Sept. 29 letter obtained by WBUR, the U.S. Department of Education demanded the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) deliver within 60 days a slew of documents about how the state monitors several key special education programs.

Part of the inquiry focused on whether the state’s roughly 100 private special education schools were equipped to manage the specific needs of students that attend them. These schools receive public dollars to teach students whose needs can’t be met by their district schools.

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DESE came under the feds’ microscope after advocacy groups, parents and school districts' personnel raised concerns for months that the state failed to properly investigate complaints about inadequate education for students with disabilities. State education departments are supposed to oversee local school districts and make sure they follow special education laws — and correct them when they find issues of noncompliance.

"The Department has been alerted of potential issues related to the implementation of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act at state and school district levels in Massachusetts.

The Department takes these concerns seriously,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said. The feds’ scrutiny comes just months after it announced Massachusetts was one of 22 states that had met the requirements of the federal law for the 2021-2022 school year….

Ellen Chambers, founder and former head of the advocacy group SPEDWatch, said parents of students with disabilities in Massachusetts have long complained about challenges they face proving to state authorities that their child was denied appropriate educational services.

“The main issue is that the state does not monitor and enforce the laws that are designed to protect parents’ and children’s special education rights,” said Chambers. She added that SPEDWatch for years encouraged parents to report concerns to the federal government.

In its letter, federal officials specifically sought information about the system Massachusetts uses to settle disputes over noncompliance with special education laws. The letter stated both parents and local educators worried about how long it takes to resolve complaints — and the criteria the state uses to reach decisions…. . If a school district — with state approval — determines it cannot meet the needs of a student with disabilities, the district is required to pay the tuition for placement at one of the state’s private special education programs, commonly known as 766 schools….

The Department of Education also questioned if there were enough qualified personnel available at the private schools.

"It is very rare for the federal government to say to Massachusetts, ‘you guys are screwing things up,’ “ said Chambers, with the advocacy group SPEDWatch. “Very rare."


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