Vermont Legislative Update June 2022
New Hampshire International Dyslexia Association - Serving Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont
Governmental Affairs and Policy Committee
Welcome to the Vermont Legislative Update, an online publication of the NHIDA, highlighting the progress of legislation and policy advancing structured-literacy curriculum and teacher training, and dyslexia screening in public education. In this forum, the Newsletter Committee gathers the latest information from Vermont advocates of the science of reading to share with NHIDA members and everyone who cares about improving literacy in the State of Vermont. The Q&A format enhances readability in this fast-paced online world, complete with footnoted links to additional information.
Q: What was the major focus regarding the education of students with learning disabilities in the Vermont Legislature during the spring 2022 session?
A. The major focus was on the Special Education Rule 23601, which involves special education eligibility changes. The rules were scheduled to begin on July 1, 2022. The legislators’ decision was to delay full implementation for another year, until July 1, 2023.
When in effect, the new rule change will eliminate the adverse effect criteria for special education eligibility for specific learning disabilities (SLD) and the discrepancy model for the identification of SLD2. Instead, identification of SLD will be based on whether the student responds to scientific, research-based intervention (i.e., Response to Intervention) or use of a model based on other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a SLD. In addition, the criteria of adverse effect for other disabilities will be expanded beyond the current academic areas of reading, writing, and mathematics difficulties to include “functional skills.”3
This rule change was part of Vermont Act 1734, passed in 2018. Act 173 also allows flexibility in spending special education funds through block grants, rather than (based on?) on individual special-education students. However, not everyone is in favor of the rule change. For example, in this Legislative session, Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council Senior Planner and Policy Analyst, Susan Aranoff, highlighted potentially the greatest concern when she testified that Act 173 would siphon limited special-education funds away from children with disabilities.
Some may recall in the 2021 session that Vermont State Senator Terenzini introduced S.75, a bill to screen all students K-3 for reading disabilities (dyslexia)5, which attracted bipartisan support but did not move out of the Senate Education Committee. Since S.75 was not discussed in 2022, in order for it to be considered again, the process must start from the very beginning with an introduction by a legislator. This unfortunately continues the practice of postponing dyslexia screening until after the crucial language and literacy learning period of grades K-2, after which dyslexia becomes very expensive, time- and labor-intensive to treat. Worldwide, researchers report the prevalence of dyslexia to affect between 5 and 20% of the population. Among students eligible for special education in the U.S., 80 to 90% of students have dyslexia.6
Q: In the decision to delay the rule change, who were the major players and which positions did they support?
A: When Vermont professional education organizations led by the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators first made the request to delay the rule change for a year, legislators were surprised to receive calls, emails, and testimony from parents and disability organizations in opposition to the delay. Legislators sought more information. Dr. Shannon Newell of Castleton University, representing the Vermont Association of School Psychologists, explained that special education students have much higher rates of dropping out and forgoing college, and thus a misidentified regular-education student could face the same negative outcomes if teachers did not receive additional training in the new rules. Understandably, Senate Education Committee Chair Brian Campion responded that her comment "raises red flags" about special education.7
The Vermont Family Network and Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council strongly supported the implementation of the rule changes starting this July. Dianna Ivey, a parent and middle-school Social Studies and English Language Arts teacher, testified with this comment:
Gaps between students that can access grade-level materials and those that struggle widen every year as educators wait for the discrepancy to be large enough… The discrepancy model requires that students fail before they can receive the support that they need… Now imagine that literally for years all the evidence (has told you) that you don't even have the ability to be proficient… Students have already self-identified as stupid and that they have less self-worth. And I feel, how dare we, in the State of Vermont, continue a practice that we know leads to the social and emotional dysregulation of our kids in middle school. ... The discrepancy model is an antiquated system and we need to get rid of it as soon as possible because we are failing our young citizens here in Vermont.8
Q: What was the outcome of the Legislative session?
A: Initially Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French testified in favor of Special Education Rule 2360 going into effect: “I don't think we can delay policy that's good for kids. And yes, it's going to be challenging to implement. ... I just simply conclude I want to err on the side of doing what's right for kids and doing that sooner rather than later.”9 However, by the end of the session in early May, when every Vermont professional educational organization requested the year’s delay, French changed course and advised providing more preparation time for school districts.
State Senator Andrew Perchlik was very supportive of the rule changes going into effect as planned. It is unclear which or how many other legislators agreed with him because there was an unanimous voice vote in the full Senate (all in favor). The outcome was to delay the law changes from taking effect until July 1, 2023.
Q: What does the outcome mean for students?
A: The criticism of both the discrepancy model (rather than using the Response to Intervention model) for the identification of SLD and the use of an adverse effect gate is that it requires children to fall far enough behind to meet severe eligibility criteria (“wait-to-fail”). There are children who will not receive special-education services because they have been found ineligible for special education. Students will have to wait another year, falling further behind without receiving services that are most effective when they are younger.10
Q: What does the outcome mean for parents?
A: This part of Special Education Rule 2360 will begin on July 1, 2022: Parents will have the opportunity to write their comments on their child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This will provide another way for parental input, though their views will not necessarily become part of the student's learning goals and services.
If parents think their child has been denied special education services as a result of the rule delay – such as when their child has a disability but does not demonstrate adverse effect – then they can contact The Vermont Family Network11 for help in filing an administrative complaint with the Vermont Agency of Education about their school district not complying with federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2015).12
Q: What does the outcome mean for school teachers and administrators?
A: Supporters of the rule delay stated that teachers were (1) overwhelmed by the pandemic, (2) lacked training in the rule changes, and (3) lacked an understanding of an alternate method of identifying specific learning disabilities known as “Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses” (PSW). The use of PSW for SLD identification is controversial because of the lack of empirical evidence of its validity. Similar to the flaws in the discrepancy model, there may be delays before patterns of strengths and weaknesses emerge. Additionally, students would require PSW testing even though this testing does not inform reading instruction. The PSW procedure may also involve IQ testing, which is a concern, since reading researchers have demonstrated that IQ should not be a factor in eligibility for special-education reading services.13
This is not a matter of intelligence measures – 95 to 97% of students can learn to read.14
Q: How might people who care about this issue make their voices heard?
A: Vermonters can contact their State Senators and Representatives about the importance of structured literacy instruction, teacher training in structured literacy, and early identification through screening.15 They can also help educate their local school board about the expected rule changes, the special education designation of Specific Learning Disability (SLD), which includes dyslexia, the need for teacher professional development in structured-literacy methods, and the impact of an SLD on their children’s learning and social-emotional well-being.16
Vermonters need to understand that growing up with an unrecognized and untreated reading disability can severely affect mental health – increasing the likelihood of anxiety, depression, and suicide risk.17 In addition, students who cannot read well are six times more likely to drop out of high school, usually access far fewer educational and career opportunities, and experience poorer health outcomes.18 Nationally, 85% of youth in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.19 Most families fully depend upon and trust their local school districts, supported by Vermont regulations, to teach their children to read and become avid readers. More advocacy will be needed to ensure Vermont adopts universal screening and structured-literacy instruction for all students beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.
This report released by the Government Affairs and Policy Committee reflects the experience, research, data analysis, and perspectives of NHIDA members serving on the committee as well as advocates in the field, and is not an official policy position of the organization or other entity.
See Newell’s testimony at minute 55:15: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJqRD1MNTmk#t=3314
Miciak, J. et. al. (2016). Do processing patterns of strengths and weaknesses predict differential treatment response? Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(6), 898–909. (See other researchers on this topic including Katz, Stuebing, McGill, Phipps.)
Livingston, E. M. Siegel, L. S, & Ribary, U. (2018). Developmental dyslexia: Emotional impact and consequences. Australian Journal of Reading Difficulties, 23, 2, 107-135.