Tuesday, December 12, 2017

IDEA Is Still The Law Of The Land

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know the US Department of Education (USDOE) rescinded 72 Dear Colleague and other letters of explanation to state education agencies regarding special education. 

Dear Colleague or guidance letters clarify a point in the law. In this case, we're talking about Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Generally, these letters are issued because state education agencies ask for clarification of the law. As advocates, we want this because we don't want local school districts misinterpreting or ignoring the law. Children get hurt when this happens. 

USDOE does, from time to time, "clean house," but as far as I can tell, this many at once is rare. They are removed because new guidance or new regulations replace them. In and of itself, removal is not a bad thing.

It's really difficult to not be skeptical of anything that happens under DeVos' tenure. Her general ignorance of the law, feigned or not, is reason enough to be on guard. 

When the department released the original list of rescinded letters, there was no explanation for their deletion. Later, they did release another list along with a brief comment about why. By that time, I had been through a good portion of the list and was able to cross-reference what I had already found. 

The majority of letters that I could find (not all were listed with a link) were, in fact, outdated. Many had been replaced with either new or updated guidance, or by changes in the law. In the case of letters about how money should be spent, those pertained to fiscal years that are past. 

A couple of things stood out to me. 

First, the guidance letters on transition and vocational training (not IDEA-specific). The federal program related to those letters no longer exists. Further guidance and programs do exist under Office of Disability Employment Policy, which falls under the US Department of Labor. It's clear, the need exists for those kinds of programs in high school, and to age 21. Certainly, NJ could use a much bigger emphasis on trades and vocational training for students with disabilities...and really, students without. 

The other issue is the letter about Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in preschool. The 2012 letter was replaced in January 2017 with a lot of language about "inclusion" before they got to what is essentially a re-hash of the rescinded 2012 letter about what LRE actually means. To me, this letter is confusing and problematic because it promotes "inclusion" and then reminds everyone of LRE, like it's an afterthought.

I know from my own experiences with parents around the state that local districts either don't understand LRE, or use it as an excuse to provide only inclusion settings to all but the most severely disabled. What causes that ignorance, willful or otherwise, is anyone's guess. Mine would be a caustic mix of lack of funding available to districts and administrators doing as little as possible while hoping parents don't know better. Yes. I'm very, very cynical about LRE. 

What's important to remember.

Please keep in mind that any guidance letter that is rescinded and replaced, or not replaced, but regulation is still in effect, does not change the compliance requirements of IDEA. Those letters are merely further clarification of statute or regulation, usually brought on by a significant level of clarification requests from state agencies. IDEA remains in effect...at least for now. 

As always, if I have missed something, please let me know in the comments below or via PM. 

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