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Virginia: "System of special broken"; bill introduced

Dec 31, 2023, Richmond Times-Dispatch: Commentary: Special education in Virginia is woefully inadequate. Improving access and instruction are key

As we enter the legislative season in Virginia, public education is again a topic that will be front and center, and rightly so.

In our view and the view of most Virginians, there is nothing more important than ensuring that every child in the commonwealth receives a great education and a pathway to a successful life.

We must come together to ensure that every student has access to and is engaged in rigorous, grade-level learning every day. This is not an easy task, but the investment will pay dividends for years to come.

Students with disabilities are frequently left out of the efforts to ensure a pathway to success. Closing this gap will be the focus of our work during this session.

The reason is simple. Virginia’s system of special education, which serves 170,000 students across the commonwealth, is brokenIt has been the subject of a scathing Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report to the General Assembly in 2020, an ongoing investigation by the United States Department of Education, and legal action by parents in the commonwealth. These actions all highlight Virginia’s ongoing failure to comply with basic requirements of federal special education programs.

What has caught our attention, however, is more fundamental — the persistent, poor educational outcomes of Virginia’s students with disabilities. Across every measure, including kindergarten readiness, early literacy, SOLs and high school success, they are well below those of nondisabled students.

For example, the pass rate for students with disabilities on the spring SOL assessments was, on average, 30% lower than that of students without disabilities; students with disabilities were 52% more likely to drop out of high school than the overall population. And, the numbers are even worse for subgroups of this population, including those who are Black, English learners or economically disadvantaged.

Despite popular myths, the vast majority of students with disabilities are just as capable of grade-level learning as their general education peers. In fact, in Virginia, seven of 10 spend the majority of their school day in general education classrooms; the problem is that they simply are not learning in those classrooms.

While we recognize that the special education system is complex and the reasons that our students are not learning are multi-faceted, what is crystal clear is that compliance with federal law alone will not change outcomes. Virginia must do more to improve and expand the instruction we provide to students with disabilities.

The bill we are introducing this session will address well-documented challenges in Virginia’s system of special education.

For example, we wait too long to identify students for services. When students are eligible, their education plans too often lack goals and services that allow them to learn and achieve at grade level. General educators feel unprepared to meet the needs of the students with disabilities in their classrooms. Principals feel unprepared to support the delivery of high-quality special education services. Special-education educators have unmanageable caseloads and lack the time to collaborate with their general education colleagues.

Finally, parents are increasingly frustrated when their children fail to learn, often despite their own, significant investment of time and effort in the special education process….


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