After a judge ordered the state of Iowa to change how schools determine if students qualify for special education, educators are grappling with how to follow the judge’s orders. And while some advocates hope this opens up special education to more students, some families are still going to great lengths to get special services for their kids.
The Andrews family in Waukee has spent the past four years trying to get special education services for their daughter Kasey, who has disability diagnoses and an extensive medical history. On a Saturday afternoon, the 12-year-old was at her dining room table with a private tutor, using plastic shapes and a paper cube to learn about angles.
Kasey’s mom, Royale Andrews, says she trusted teachers when they told her Kasey was progressing along with her peers.
“But then after hearing the same story another year and seeing her homework she’d bring home, and we’d have major meltdowns because we weren’t able to do it, I knew there had to be another way,” Royale Andrews says.
Royale started asking school officials for help, but she thought Kasey needed more than what was provided.
After getting an advocate and a lawyer involved, and after being denied special education services once before, Kasey now has an individualized education program (IEP) for math. It’s a legal document that lays out what special education services she requires to succeed at school.
Nathan Mundy, the family’s attorney, says Kasey should have an IEP for all academic subjects.
“The school’s reason for not giving an IEP is they claim that Kasey’s test scores are not low enough,” Mundy says.
In March of 2017, an administrative law judge ordered the Iowa Department of Education to ensure schools and area education agencies, or AEAs, don’t focus solely on how much a student is falling behind her peers when deciding if she qualifies for special education. For example, some officials would only grant special education services if the student’s school performance was in the 12th percentile or lower compared to peers.
The department only recently dropped its appeal of the judge’s order and agreed to issue new “guidance” to schools and AEAs prohibiting those standards.
Barb Guy, state director of special education for Iowa, says educators are working to understand the judge’s orders.
“Now this year the AEAs are just coming back to work, and so we’re engaging in collaboration with them to look at deeper considerations within the procedures.”
Guy says staff may have trouble determining special education eligibility now that they can’t base decisions on a precise level of discrepancy in student performance. They’ll need a different way to measure “adequate progress.” She says the department and AEAs are forming a team to discuss new procedures.
“We will be looking at probably releasing some memos, doing some training, and consulting with some of our national experts,” Guy says.
The department also updated its special education procedures manual to reflect the judge’s orders. But it’s still unclear what specific changes will be made and how families will be informed about new policies.
Curt Sytsma, one of the lawyers involved in the case that prompted the judge’s order, says the state has already acted to make some changes.
“But some of these practices are now entrenched,” Sytsma says. “I think it’ll take some time for these messages to get out.”
He adds Iowa tends to exclude some of the “brighter” students with learning disabilities from special education by setting the bar too low.
Mundy, the Andrews’ attorney, says changing that could expand access to special education if the state develops policies to intervene with struggling students earlier.
“If they’re borderline failing, what I hope the department of education decides to do is say, ‘Well why should we wait until the kid drowns?’ Instead, stop the kid from going underwater altogether,” Mundy says.
Mundy says it’s a widespread issue in the state, but thinks schools and AEAs are doing their best with the resources they have.
Randy Allison, acting special education director at Heartland AEA in central Iowa, says his organization started following the judge’s ruling a year before the state agreed to make changes.
“We feel like we have one year in the books on improving our practice and responding the way we understand would be in line with the ruling,” Allison says. He adds he’s shared information with the other AEAs in the state but is unsure where they are at on implementing the ruling.
Allison also says Heartland AEA doesn’t have a specific plan for finding and re-evaluating students who may have slipped through the cracks in the past.
“If there is a parent who says, ‘I don’t think you did it correctly, or I think my child should have another look’, all they have to do is to contact us through the local school district,” Allison says. “We’ll look into it and make it right if we didn’t get it right the first time.”
He says there hasn’t been “more than a handful” of parents in the past year who came to him with that concern.
“I don’t believe—I could be wrong—that there’s going to be a huge groundswell now that says, ‘You’ve continued to miss it,’” Allison says.
Mark Andrews, Kasey’s dad, feels differently. He says he’s met other parents in the same position.
“And they’re saying, ‘Well we were denied services.’ And I said, ‘It’s a long road, but you can’t give up.’ But it shouldn’t be that way, in my opinion,” says Mark Andrews. “A parent should not have to go through this much to get the help they need for their child in a public school district.”
Lawyer Curt Sytsma says parents of children with learning disabilities need to be active advocates.
“It’s required to get the services they need,” Sytsma says.
Now the Andrews family is waiting for a ruling on a complaint they filed, asking a judge to order Kasey’s school to provide special education in all academic subjects.
The school district and AEA stand by their decisions and say in a court filing that just because Kasey’s not proficient in every standard doesn’t mean she needs special education. The brief points to Kasey’s standardized test scores, which school and AEA staff say are in the average range.
Royale says she’s not asking the school system to get her daughter into an Ivy League college.
“What I do feel they need to be able to do is educate my daughter and give her an education just like every other child and where she can do actual daily life living skills,” she says.