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Why IEPs Are So Difficult to Track

Michael Nutter

September 20, 2017

IEPs are a critical component of how American public school districts get the funding they need, but adequately supporting them can be difficult without precise record-keeping.

Before the 1975 passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA), public schools in the United States only accommodated 20% of students with special needs. As a result, more than one million children had no access to the public school system, and another 3.5 million children were shuttled into separate classrooms where they received little to no effective instruction.

Though not without its problems, IDEA has succeeded in providing millions of students with access to what the law refers to as Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) over the last four decades. As of 2015, nearly six million students receive special education services in American public schools every year.

Unfortunately, many schools have struggled to keep up with the growing number of students who quality for special services under IDEA. While the general student population in U.S. public schools grew by 20% between 1980 and 2005, the population served by IDEA grew by 37%. This has resulted in the share of IDEA students in American public schools increasing from 10% in the 1980s to 14% today, a jump that can be attributed in large part to the growth of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

Understanding IEPs

In short, an IEP is a binding legal document detailing the special education services that a student will receive in order to maximize his or her chances of success in school and beyond. It outlines a student’s specific learning needs, the accommodations their school will make in order to meet those needs, and a rubric that can be used to assess the student’s progress from year to year.

Since schools are required by law to meet every obligation they agree to in an IEP, the process for drafting one can get complicated. If a parent or guardian believes that their child has a learning impairment that is preventing the child from achieving their full potential, IDEA secures their right to request an evaluation from their school district.

During the evaluation process, a school psychologist and/or relevant professional may administer a variety of tests, observe the student in a classroom environment, or hold a series of one-on-one meetings with the student. Even though medical professionals will occasionally take part in this evaluative process, the goal is not to deliver a specific diagnosis, but rather, to determine whether a student has a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” their ability to learn.

If the IEP team (which includes evaluators, parents or guardians, and school officials) decides that a student needs special education services in order to follow the district’s general education curriculum, the process continues to the next step. At this point, the IEP team creates a set of specific, measurable goals for the student’s academic progress and defines exactly how the school will help him or her accomplish those goals.

Once an IEP has been finalized, the student’s parent or guardian must give the school district their informed consent before the plan can be implemented. When a parent or guardian agrees to the IEP in writing, they are certifying that the plan fulfills the school’s obligations under IDEA to their satisfaction, though the parent or guardian can withdraw their consent at any time. This process typically becomes easier as a student progresses through school, but IDEA requires that every IEP be reviewed and revised at a minimum of once per year.

Securing Maximum Funding

Unfortunately, the fairly effective mechanisms outlined in IDEA are often undercut by inadequate funding. Research indicates that schools spend an average of 1.9 times more in total expenditures and 2.08 times more in current operating expenditures on students with a learning-impairing disability than on non-disabled students. In short, IEPs are effective, but expensive.

In an effort to prevent the over-identification of learning disabilities, the federal government distributes IDEA funding to each state based on the number of IDEA-eligible students the state has — not based on the actual number of students with an IEP. Once federal IDEA funding is apportioned in this way, individual school districts are entitled to claim a certain amount of money per IEP from their state government.

As such, school districts must keep close track of how many active IEPs they support over the course of a given school year. Since an IEP can be drawn up at any point during the year and must be revisited and renewed within one calendar year of its activation, it can be incredibly difficult for a school to maintain records that accurately reflect the number of students enrolled in its special services program.

This is where software like CheckPoint from Vinson Consulting Group becomes so critical. Vinson helps school districts streamline and optimize their education management information system (EMIS) processes, which is the first step toward securing a full funding package from a state government. Specifically, Vinson creates a system of reporting accountability that makes the process of checking and verifying all EMIS records for legal compliance a breeze. In doing so, we help ensure that your district doesn’t end up providing special education services that it doesn’t have the funding for.

The ultimate goal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is to provide every student with the instruction they need to reach their true potential. This takes, among other things, dedicated teachers, generous politicians, and detailed record-keeping. At Vinson, we understand that providing exemplary education for all is a team effort, and we’re honored to be able to help schools work towards that ideal.

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