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FCPS special education review finds inequitable discipline, transparency concerns

The Fairfax County School Board discusses a first-year interim report of a two-year review of the district’s special education program (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools is conducting the first public review of its special education services since 2013 after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional learning with remote classes that disproportionately affected students with disabilities.

Presented to the school board at a work session yesterday (Tuesday), findings from the first year of the review highlight families’ frustrations with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process and suggest the school system disproportionately disciplines special education students, especially Black and Hispanic children.

Requested by the school board in December 2019 and officially launched on Nov. 10, 2020, the interim report states explicitly that the review “does not address special education programming during COVID-19.”

The contracted firm — the Arlington-headquartered nonprofit American Institutes for Research — said FCPS decided to focus on collecting data for normal school operations.

On the positive side, surveys of both staff and parents found that 87% of the over 18,500 parents who responded “agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the quality of teaching staff in their child’s school,” frequently noting the caring nature of instructional staff and expressing appreciation for employees.

The review showed that, from 2016-2021, FCPS had about nine or 10 students per special education teacher, a lower ratio than the state average of 15-to-1. The district has also taken steps to improve communication with school staff, including by appointing an assistant ombudsman for special education in 2019, the report said.

While researchers stressed that this is an initial update and the conclusions aren’t final, the report found several areas of concern:

  • Families voiced a lack of transparency and accountability about Individualized Education Program goals and progress
  • Suspension and expulsion rates were higher for certain races than others
  • Parents suggested that the IEP process for getting student input on post-high school transition plans “may be driven by compliance rather than student needs”
  • Novice teachers lack preparation to work with students with disabilities, an area that researchers are investigating further
  • Staff reported feeling overwhelmed by case management, paperwork, and meeting duties, affecting FCPS’ ability to effectively recruit and retain teachers
  • The amount and quality of communication between parents and staff varies by school
  • A sampling showed more than a third of IEPs had no written evidence of parent input

“‘It’s so sad.’ That’s what I wrote all over this document,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said.

An interim report for a special education review compared suspension rates for students with disabilities and other students (via American Institutes of Research/FCPS)

In addition to discussing how to address the issues raised by the report, school board member after school board member raised concerns about the review process, urging researchers to be specific in their recommendations by looking at subgroups and other factors. Officials suggested broad takeaways could dilute matters and not help families.

“My fear overall about this is that this is a one-sized-fits-all special ed audit,” Laura Jane Cohen, the board’s Springfield District representative, said.

Researchers responded that they used a random sampling to collect their preliminary findings. They also noted constraints with interviewing kids, while expressing a willingness to consider changes.

The firm said it will go more in-depth during the second year of a $375,000-plus contract issued in October 2020.

FCPS Auditor General Esther Ko reminded the board that it has a fixed contract and the firm will work at no cost for three more months after its second year. If the board wants more changes, though, it could amend the contract or open another bidding process to look at other topics.

The board requested that Ko to evaluate possible changes to the review with American Institutes for Research for its audit committee to go over later.

Currently set to be completed next summer, the review will make recommendations to FCPS for how to improve services for students with disabilities and their families.

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