Federal complaint: Idaho’s special education manual is out of compliance

The Idaho Department of Education said Tuesday that Idaho’s criteria for special education eligibility needs revision in order to comply with federal law.

That news came as no surprise to Decoding Dyslexia Idaho and education advocate Ashley Brittain, an attorney with The Brittain Group, who filed the federal complaint, after years of repeated attempts to convince the Sherri Ybarra administration that Idaho was out of compliance. Ybarra served eight years as Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“It’s unfortunate that Debbie Critchfield inherited this because we started this fight in 2018 under the previous superintendent,” said Robin Zikmund, founder of Decoding Dyslexia Idaho. 

Idaho’s criteria for providing students with specific learning disability (SLD) services represent “a higher bar” than what is allowed by federal law, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

“Idaho has been incorrectly identifying” thousands of children under the category of SLD, according to an email from The Brittain Group to state officials.

Zikmund said students with learning disabilities — like dyslexia or dysgraphia – were repeatedly denied services for years. As an advocate for parents, she attended countless Individualized Education Program eligibility meetings across the state in several school districts. IEPs outline special education instruction and services.

If parents and their advocates “pushed back” hard after being denied SLD services, Zikmund said, a district would place the student in the other health impairment (OHI) category, which does not guarantee the same services. Dyslexia falls under the SLD category.

“Even our qualifying category numbers alone should have been a red flag to most. Idaho’s largest qualifying category is OHI.  Whereas in most states, SLD is the most common qualifying category.  This makes sense, considering dyslexia affects one-in-five children,” she said.

The Department of Education will begin work on revising the state’s Special Education Manual following the OSEP’s inquiry, a press release states.

In an Oct. 20 letter, OSEP directed the state to examine portions of the manual that address what is required for students to receive special education services for SLD. 

The OSEP outlined five required steps to be completed in 90 days. Among OSEP’s requirements is “review and revise” eligibility criteria for identifying a child with an SLD under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. A notification of policy revisions must be issued to all public agencies, local education agencies, parent advocacy groups, the state advisory panel and other interested parties advising them of the state’s revised eligibility criteria.

Zikmund said, “It’s a game changer. These kids are going to finally have a chance at getting effective small group instruction that they need. Without them qualifying, those students fall through the cracks, further and further behind.”

When the manual is eventually revised, “massive” training is needed statewide, Zikmund said. “All of the special education supervisors, and therefore their schools, have been trained to follow criteria that is not in compliance with federal law. They have to be re-trained.”

The Department of Education will convene a working group that will meet Dec. 19 at 8 a.m. at the Department of Education’s Barbara Morgan Conference Room. Those interested in providing input for the group can submit comments to [email protected]

“It’s unfortunate for the thousands of kids that attempted to seek support and services … that were turned away,” Brittain said in the email.

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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