What are U.S. Department of Education Determinations and Why Do You Need to Know About Them?

Want to know how your state or "entity" did with its implementation of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? Look to U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Special Education Program's (OSEP) annual "determinations" for answers.

Every year, states and "entities" are required to evaluate their implementation of IDEA and submit their State Performance Plan and Annual Performance Report (SPP/APR) to USDOE, which subsequently releases determination letters based on SPP/APR in response. There's a two year lag, so the 2023 determination letters, as an example, reflect the 2021 SPPs/APRs submitted by the states and entities, and provide the determination and basis for determination based on the 2021 period.

The following are the four determination categories:

  • Meets the requirements and purposes of IDEA;
  • Needs assistance in implementing the requirements of IDEA;
  • Needs intervention in implementing the requirements of IDEA; or
  • Needs substantial intervention in implementing the requirements of IDEA.

For its 2021 and 2022 determination, USDOE did not issue “needs intervention” determinations because “SPP/APR data collections for FFY 2019 and FFY 2020 were impacted by COVID-19.”

What Happens if States or Entities Fail to "Meet Requirements"?

According to USDOE OSEP, states of entities "For States that received a determination of “needs assistance” for two or more consecutive years, the Department must take one or more enforcement actions, including, among others, requiring the State to access technical assistance, designating the State as a high-risk grantee, or directing the use of State set-aside funds to the area(s) where the State needs assistance. If a State receives a determination of “needs intervention” for three or more consecutive years, the Department must take certain enforcement actions."

For example, in the case of South Carolina, OSEP did take "enforcement actions" that are detailed in its 2022 determination letter:

In accordance with Section 616(e)(1) of the IDEA and 34 C.F.R. § 300.604(a), if a State is determined to need assistance for two consecutive years, the Secretary must take one or more of the following actions: (1) advise the State of available sources of technical assistance that may help the State address the areas in which the State needs assistance and require the State to work with appropriate entities; (2) direct the use of State-level funds on the area or areas in which the State needs assistance; or (3) identify the State as a high-risk grantee and impose Specific Conditions on the State’s IDEA Part B grant award.

Pursuant to these requirements, the Secretary is advising the State of available sources of technical assistance, including OSEP-funded technical assistance centers and resources at the following websites: Monitoring and State Improvement Planning (MSIP) | OSEP Ideas That Work, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Topic Areas, and requiring the State to work with appropriate entities. In addition, the State should consider accessing technical assistance from other Department-funded centers such as the Comprehensive Centers with resources at the following link: https://compcenternetwork.org/states. The Secretary directs the State to determine the results elements and/or compliance indicators, and improvement strategies, on which it will focus its use of available technical assistance, in order to improve its performance. We strongly encourage the State to access technical assistance related to those results elements and compliance indicators for which the State received a score of zero. Your State must report with its FFY 2021 SPP/APR submission, due February 1, 2023, on: (1) the technical assistance sources from which the State received assistance; and (2) the actions the State took as a result of that technical assistance.

As required by IDEA Section 616(e)(7) and 34 C.F.R. § 300.606, your State must notify the public that the Secretary of Education has taken the above enforcement actions, including, at a minimum, by posting a public notice on its website and distributing the notice to the media and through public agencies.

As a reminder, your State must report annually to the public, by posting on the State educational agency’s (SEA’s) website, the performance of each local educational agency (LEA) located in the State on the targets in the SPP/APR as soon as practicable, but no later than 120 days after the State’s submission of its FFY 2020 SPP/APR. In addition, your State must: (1) review LEA performance against targets in the State’s SPP/APR; (2) determine if each LEA “meets the requirements” of Part B, or “needs assistance,” “needs intervention,” or “needs substantial intervention” in implementing Part B of the IDEA; (3) take appropriate enforcement action; and (4) inform each LEA of its determination.

Further, your State must make its SPP/APR available to the public by posting it on the SEA’s website. Within the upcoming weeks, OSEP will be finalizing a State Profile that: (1) includes the State’s determination letter and SPP/APR, OSEP attachments, and all State attachments that are accessible in accordance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; and (2) will be accessible to the public via the ed.gov website.

For the years 2017 to 2022, SPP/APR Part B and Part C submissions for each state and entity, and OSEP's responses to the submissions, can be found on USDOE's site. According to USDOE, the 2023 letters won't be publicly posted until August 2023, however the determinations were posted June 26, 2023.

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