Loudoun County Public Schools is being accused of downplaying the needs of special education students to justify cutting special education staff.
In her quarterly presentation to the school board on March 14, Sharon Tropf, Special Education Advisory Committee chairwoman, said the school division was under-reporting needs of special education students and the services they are provided in Individualized Education Programs. IEPs are specially designed education plans for students with educational disabilities. In Virginia, they include assessments and annual benchmarks, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
“Using system-wide growth projections versus special education services, we are rounding down in our ratios and our computations,” Tropf said. “Students, teachers and school administrators are not getting their needs met.”
In an interview with the Loudoun Times-Mirror and a follow-up email, Tropf elaborated. She said LCPS uses the number of minutes recorded in a student’s IEP to determine staffing. The time must also be reported to the VDOE to meet requirements of the Individuals With Disabilities Act, a federal law designed to ensure a “free and appropriate public education” to children with disabilities.
Tropf said LCPS staff have told her they’ve under-counted the time special education students are in “self-contained settings,” such as 90-minute block classes.
“IEP designees have reported saying that they have been given guidance from administration that ‘only direct services to the student’ are documented in the IEP,” Tropf wrote in the email. “For example, an IEP team may document only 30 minutes of the 90 minutes a student spends in a self-contained study hall in the IEP, which misrepresents the time the student is not participating in the general education setting with non-disabled peers.”
Among the goals of the IDEA is to place special education students in general education classes when possible, a process known as inclusion or mainstreaming. The VDOE calculates how much time students spend in general and special education settings. It defines regular education time as “all activities except those provided in a separate special education environment.”
Tropf said, based on the VDOE definition, the LCPS method of identifying time in special education environments would “grossly under-count” the minutes students spend in special education settings, which are used to calculate “regular class percent.” At the board meeting, she used the example of a student spending 80 minutes in a special education math class, but it only being reported as 30 minutes.
“Not only are we impacting our overall reporting of the number of teachers we need, we’re also misrepresenting to VDOE the number of minutes are students are in a special ed setting and not the general education setting,” said Tropf, a special education advocate for a law firm who has been on the committee since 2009 and is the parent of two LCPS graduates who were special education students.
Tropf was also critical of proposed cuts of at least eight of the 36 federally funded special education positions in the proposed $1.6 billion budget passed by the school board on Feb. 2. She said SEAC is concerned LCPS is underestimating increases in special education students and said special education teachers’ caseloads are already overloaded. She told board members that LCPS is unable to meet all the needs of special education students due to understaffing and the positions slated to be cut should be restored.
“Services are being cut and we have eligibility for services being denied. This results in an overall denial of a free and appropriate public education,” Tropf said. “Funding of our teachers and related service providers is critical and imperative to meet the needs of our students.”
Tropf said the cuts would hurt the school division’s approximately 9,500 special education students. They comprise about 11%, of the approximately 83,000 LCPS students. She said the cuts would exacerbate “disparities” and “low morale” and cause “significant concerns for staff retention.”
Responding to the under-reporting allegations, Asia Jones, Department of Support Services assistant superintendent, told board members that administrators “work diligently to address those concerns when they are brought to our attention”
Jones said LCPS has a lower special education student-to-staff ratio than the VDOE requires. Nonetheless, she conceded special education staffing has become a “very big challenge.”
Special education teacher shortages have long been a problem nationally due to grueling demands of the job, an issue documented by the National Association of State Boards of Education. It said about 60% of a special education teacher’s day is spent doing paperwork and attending meetings.