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Federal government gives Idaho Dept. of Education 90 days to meet special education qualification standards

An empty classroom with 10 desks grouped together in the middle of the room and a teacher's desk at the front of the room.
Matt Rourke
Associated Press
An empty classroom.

Meeting the U.S. Department of Education's timeline could be difficult because Idaho's process to change the education code requires legislative action.

In 2022, a parent in Meridian made a complaint against the Idaho Department of Education for what it requires for a child to receive special education. When the state department didn’t address the issue, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.

Now, the federal agency is forcing the state of Idaho to align its qualifying standards with federal requirements.

Ashley Brittain moved to Idaho in 2021; she’s a lawyer and mom of five. She says all her kids are autistic and two also have dyslexia, but Idaho’s standards make it especially hard for kids with dyslexia to qualify for the support they could get in other states. She said she also helps families navigate roadblocks to special education instruction. It’s work she’s done for years as a special education consultant.

“It has been particularly difficult in Idaho because there is not a special education attorney in the entire state,” she said.

Brittain is an attorney licensed in California, but not in Idaho. She said she helps people navigate the process in Idaho pro bono because it’s a more direct potential solution than litigation - which she can’t do here.

In Idaho, she said the state illegally requires two qualifying methods for students to receive special education instruction for what are called ‘specific learning disabilities.’

“Roughly 25% of all kids [nationwide] who are qualified for special ed fall under the specific learning disability category,” she explained. “‘Specific learning disability’ can include math, reading comprehension, fluency, [subjects] like that.”

The most common specific learning disability is dyslexia. Roughly one in five children suffer from dyslexia, though many don’t need special education curriculum to succeed in the classroom, according to Robin Zikmund, president of advocacy nonprofit Decoding Dyslexia Idaho.

Zikmund said specific learning disabilities are the most common way students in every other state qualify to receive special education. In Idaho, a specific learning disability is the second-most common qualifier for special education students.

One method used to evaluate need is called the Severe Discrepancy Model. It compares students’ perceived abilities with their classroom performance.

“Their processing skills, their cognition, their psychological profile,” Brittain explained. A large enough gap between those measurements could prompt a need for special education instruction.

The federal government in 2008 prohibited states from requiring the Severe Discrepancy Model, but continued to allow its use. States are allowed to design the evaluations they use.

Brittain said special education leaders under previous Superintendent of Public Instruction, Sherri Ybarra, told her Idaho’s competency evaluations didn’t qualify as severe discrepancy models.

The second model is called Response To Intervention, or RTI. Brittain explained it measures whether students are getting better academic outcomes with some specialized instruction. If outcomes remain the same, a need for special education is demonstrated.

“Idaho thought it would be really great if they just required both things,” Brittain said. “And that's illegal.”

The federal government agreed, calling Idaho’’s process to determine eligibility “unclear.” On Oct. 20, 2023, Debbie Williams, director of the federal Office of Special Education Programs, sent a letter to Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield ordering the state to review its special education qualifying standards and bring them into compliance with federal law.

“We knew that the complaint had been filed in May of last year, when the previous administration was still in office,” Idaho Department of Education spokesperson Scott Graf said.

“We have been in touch with the individuals who sent the letter for some clarifications on timeline, and our staff is basically beginning work on it immediately.”

The letter gave Idaho 90 days to comply, but that timeline could be difficult to meet because of the state’s process to change the education code.

“Where these changes would be made,” Graf explained, “the state special education manual, that is part of IDAPA ( Idaho Administrative Procedure Act). And, changes to those rules have to go through a specific rule revision process.”

That involves the state legislature. Graf said he hopes the issue could come before lawmakers in the upcoming session, but there is a lot of work to do to make that happen. The state is currently working with their federal counterparts to determine exactly what needs to be accomplished by the deadline. “That 90-day window, as we understand it at this point,” Graf said, “is the timeline in which we respond with the state's plan, the long term plan to make these changes.”

Brittain, meanwhile, is happy she got the expected result of her complaint. But she said she and other parents had been beating the drum about this issue for a long time. She felt her concerns were dismissed by local and state education officials. That’s why she sent a complaint to the federal government.

Graf said the department would use the forced review as an opportunity for more comprehensive updates to the state’s special education manual, which was last revised in 2018.

Critchfield in July named Chynna Hirasaki as state Director of Special Education. She follows Julie Mead who was named to the position in February, but has since returned to the Caldwell School District. Mead replaced Charlie Silva, whom Ybarra hired to direct special education when she took office in 2015.

Brittain, who was a campaign volunteer for Critchfield in 2022, hopes Idaho will make it easier for families of children with all levels of learning disabilities to get the help they need.

“These kids, there is no due process for them,’ she said. “There is no remedy for people who are told ‘no’ by these school districts.”

Editor’s note: Scott Graf is a former Boise State Public Radio employee, who worked in the newsroom until 2016.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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