Iowa Agrees To Change Special Education Practices; Advocates Wonder If It's Enough

Jul 13, 2018

More than a year after receiving orders from an administrative judge, the Iowa Department of Education agreed to make some changes to special education requirements that could open up special education programs to more students.

In March 2017, Administrative Law Judge Christie Scase instructed Iowa schools to stop requiring a “significant or severe discrepancy” in school performance in order to provide special education services to a student. Scase also said schools should not deny a student special education just because extra help can be provided within a general education context.

The Iowa Department of Education appealed Scase’s ruling in federal court. But court filings show the department recently dropped its appeal and agreed to comply with the order.

Department attorney Thomas Mayes said officials needed time to sort through the extensive ruling.

“After looking through the decision itself…the department determined it could comply with the two orders for declaratory relief in the decision,” Mayes said.

The issue started with a complaint from a family in the Urbandale Community School District, identified in court documents as A.W. and A.W.’s Parents. The family was seeking reimbursement of costs for tutoring services they acquired after A.W. was found to be ineligible for special education services at school.

Judge Scase found the family was entitled to reimbursement for the tutoring and for attorney’s fees.

This week, a federal judge ordered the Iowa Department of Education to pay $316,505 in attorney’s fees to A.W.’s parents. The department tried to get the school district and the Heartland Area Education Agency to pay part of the cost, but the judge denied that request.

As for Scase’s order for statewide changes in special education eligibility, some stakeholders wonder if the Department of Education’s compliance will be enough.

“Advocates will have to stay busy to make sure it’s implemented in an appropriate way,” said Curt Sytsma, an attorney for A.W.’s parents.

Katie Greving, president of Decoding Dyslexia Iowa, said she was pleased the department dropped the appeal so it can move forward with the judge’s order.

“Essentially it should change the way special education evaluations are conducted,” Greving said of the ruling.

But she said she’s concerned that the state waited more than a year to start implementing the judge’s ruling.

Mayes said he thinks a small number of additional students might become eligible for special education because of the changes.

“And the reason I say [students] on the margins versus a whole scale change is our statewide eligibility percentage is right in the middle of the national average,” Mayes said.

“This affects more than a few [students],” Sytsma said. “If [the department] interprets it that way, then we have more work to do.”

An education department spokesperson said the July 2018 manual for statewide special education procedures reflects the judge’s ruling. The spokesperson said the “revised guidance” and updated practices will be in place for the 2018-2019 school year.