Commentary: Fed Crackdown on Failing VT Special Ed

The US Department of Education (USDE) recently found that Vermont is one of only two states which “needs intervention in implementing the requirements of Part B Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).” This shatters the myth that Vermont offers disabled students a superior education.

According to the USDE, “if a State needs intervention for 3 consecutive years, the Department must take one or more enforcement actions, including among others, requiring a corrective action plan or compliance agreement, or withholding further payments to the State.” One year down, two to go. If the feds took any of the $100 or so million they have given Vermont annually in the past few years, that could be fiscally disastrous, since Vermont spends double the national average per student on special education.

The structure of IDEA was federally inaugurated in 1975 to provide “educational benefit to the child.” Part B of IDEA “serves students with disabilities, ages 3 through 21.” According to the USDE, Vermont is failing to provide this benefit.

21 states “meet the requirements” of the IDEA Part B, including half of New England: New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts. The USDE classified 27 states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, as “needing assistance.” The federal government has no mandate to act on states needing assistance. But states receiving the worst designation “needs intervention” better be on their toes.

Only Vermont and New York appeared on this ‘Intervention List,’ both for the first time. Though this should not come as entirely as a surprise. Both Vermont and New York “needed assistance” according to the 2019 determinations. “Needing intervention” was the next step backwards.

In the USDE’s 2020 IDEA annual report, the USDE assigned “Intervention”  and “Assistance” designations using equally weighted “Results” and “Compliance” Matrixes.

The USDE Compliance Matrix for the 2021 annual report, rates the 50 states with the following data:

  1. Whether the state reported valid and reliable data to the federal government for F2018
  2. The state’s timeliness and accuracy of complaint and due process decisions for disabled students
  3. Whether the state corrected “findings of noncompliance” from F2018 and prior years

The USDE Results Matrix similarly rates the 50 states on disabled children’s academic performance in 2019:

  1. % of 4th & 8th grade “disabled children” taking NAEP and statewide tests
  2. % of 4th & 8th grade “disabled children” scoring at “basic or above” on NAEP math and reading tests
  3. % of disabled children exiting school by dropping out, and % graduating with a high school diploma

The USDE doesn’t inform us how states did on each matrix, but our Results Matrix is likely poor. In 2019, Vermont sat in the middle of the pack for 8th grade NAEP math and reading tests. And were far below average for 4th grade NAEP math and reading tests.

Sadly, Vermont’s poor NAEP scores are even worse than what the USDE IDEA determination would indicate, because the USDE doesn’t look at student demographic differences in its determinations. Nationally, white students score higher on NAEP tests than minority students. As one of the whitest states in the country, you would expect Vermont’s scores to be high. Instead, states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia all received much higher USDE determinations than Vermont did for 2020. Their white students score better than Vermont’s white students. Their minority students score better than Vermont’s minority students.

We’ve heard of families moving to Vermont to get their disabled child the attention the child needs to succeed. If this trend continues, perhaps families will leave Vermont so their disabled student can escape an education system that doesn’t give them life skills.

Nationwide surveys consistently rank Vermont within the top 10 states on K-12 education in the country, because our education spending dwarfs most other states. But many of those studies confuse inputs (money spent) with outputs (student achievement). It doesn’t matter how much you spend on education if Vermont students are failing to learn how to do math as well as their peers.

A 2016 UVM study signified the “need to reform the State’s special education funding formula.” That is one suggestion. Studying states which get better results for less money is another. But something must be done, now that our rate of failure is bad enough to draw federal attention. The status quo is to ignore the needs of Vermont’s disabled students.


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Enter Comment Here:

  • Mack Gardner-Morse
    commented 2021-05-03 15:55:26 -0400
    We already had a school board member leave the State because she could not get appropriate services for her children in our district. Moving is easy for professional couples with desirable jobs skills. What about less fortunate families?

    Note that our (Vermont’s) test scores are inflated because unlike other States, Vermont special education students do not take the NAEP tests. Secretary French claims it is just a data reporting problem, but parents of special education students know their children have the school day off on the day of NAEP testing.

    Unfortunately, our tenure bounded universities and colleges, which train our teachers, have failed to implement and teach our new teacher the majority recommendations of the 2000 National Reading Panel. Interesting that Vermont is so willing to jump on the climate change crisis, but college educated teachers are not willing to follow the science of reading education. Of course, we can get working class people to pay for climate policies like net metering. In a way, working class families are paying for the failure of our educational system to adapt effective instruction. Employers with automated machines can not find employees who can read the messages from the machines they are suppose to be operating. The legislative solution? Spend more money.
  • David Flemming
    published this page in EAI Commentary 2021-04-21 11:10:31 -0400