29th November 2023

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.

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.

DESE plans to issue a “thorough and detailed” response to the feds’ inquiry, according to Russell Johnston, the department’s deputy commissioner.

“DESE believes the services and support schools and districts provide to students with disabilities is critical to the students’ success in school and beyond,” Johnston said in an emailed statement to WBUR. “DESE works closely with schools and districts to provide high quality special education services to students with disabilities.”

Federal law mandates school districts provide “a free and appropriate public education” to students with disabilities; schools also must help develop and administer individualized education programs (IEPs) for these students and make sure their plans are followed with the proper services.

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.

The feds questioned whether DESE “only issues decisions on procedural violations and dismisses more substantive allegations raising a denial of a free appropriate public education.”

Diana Santiago, senior attorney with Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said she wasn’t surprised by the issues highlighted in the letter, particularly when it comes to how the state resolves complaints from parents.

“I’m hopeful that the letter will prompt the Massachusetts Department of Education to deeply examine what is ineffective about the system that’s currently in place and to make the changes that are needed,” said Santiago.

In the letter, the federal government said advocates and parents also had complained of issues at private special education schools the state is charged with overseeing.

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.

However, federal education officials said in the letter that an initial review of the state’s standards for these schools showed the state appeared to largely focus on whether the schools met health and safety requirements, as opposed to federal education requirements.

The U.S. government said it wanted more information about how the state monitors those schools and places students in them. Its letter also asked for any “findings of noncompliance” under the federal law issued in the past three years.

“Parents and advocates have alleged that IEPs are rewritten after enrollment to include services based on the resources the private school currently has available rather than the individual needs of the child,” the letter said. “Parents reported they are afraid to address their concerns with the private schools and [school districts] for fear of retaliation … which can include loss of the student’s current placement.”

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.”