Basic information about IEP access lacking in Massachusetts public schools

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Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), geared at students whose educational needs fall outside the norm, are crucial to the academic success of tens of thousands of Massachusetts children. But because IEPs can be costly for public school systems, students on the cusp of need can easily fall through the cracks.

If parents suspect their child needs an IEP to perform to his or her potential and the school has not raised the issue, the parents can request that the school district perform an evaluation.  If the district finds the child to be within norms, no IEP is proposed.  Parents can then get an independent evaluation at a cost of about $2,000 or can challenge the school to pay for it, but legal fees may wind up costing more than the evaluation itself.

We’re trying to figure out if families that can afford the time and expense of obtaining independent evaluations stand a better chance of having their children placed on IEPs than those who simply leave it up to the school district to determine whether there is a need.

So we set out to collect some data. To get the information, MuckRock filed several Freedom of Information requests for IEP data across Massachusetts. Three pieces of information were requested:

– The number of students evaluated by the district to determine if they qualified for an IEP
– The number of students who qualified for an IEP based on that evaluation
– The number of students initially rejected but subsequently placed on an IEP after independent assessments that were completed outside the district.

Of the 16 school systems MuckRock contacted, Boston is the only district that has produced the requested information in full.

State public records law states that officials can charge for the time it takes to compile and redact sensitive information from requested documents. Three of the school systems have responded to say they require payment for any part of the requested information.

Two schools require payment for one of the three requests, including Barnstable Public Schools, which wants $8,564 to calculate how many initially rejected students were eventually placed on an IEP. That amount apparently accounts for reviewing the files of all 714 IEP students, because the system hasn’t kept track of which ones were originally rejected. Wellesley Public Schools provided a similar reply.

Four schools have not responded at all in nearly four months since the requests were sent, and two schools have replied to say the information simply does not exist. A staff attorney from Lowell Public Schools said the school system does “not collect or compile the data that you request. To respond and comply with your requests, Lowell would have to create a system for collecting and compiling information that we do not currently have in place. At this time, Lowell has neither the staff nor the resources to do this.”

These wildly differing answers give a frightening glimpse into how little transparency there is in Massachusetts’ public schools. Parents should have easy access to this information to keep schools accountable, and Boston parents don’t have any more or less of a right to it than their counterparts in Lowell.