Special education departments across Vermont may have been using the wrong rules to guide decisions over what services children receive. That's because Agency of Education officials say the wrong draft of the state's special education rules were filed with the Secretary of State back in 2013.
And the State Board held a series of public meetings at the time, to bring Vermont's rules in line with the new federal standards.
But Agency of Education spokeswoman Haley Dover says the wrong draft was sent to the Secretary of State, and so the wrong version has been on the agency's web page.
Dover says agency officials recently discovered the discrepancies while doing maintenance on the website.
"We found that the rules that schools have been following, based on what the state board had approved, did not match what was sent to the secretary of state's office," Dover says. "We noticed, just pretty recently, while updating links that they didn't match."
Dover says staff members who worked at the agency in 2013 have since left and she says it's not clear how the wrong version made it to the Secretary of State's office.
Many of the differences are minor; they're typos, or reflect formatting changes.
But there are five substantial discrepancies and some of them could have affected decisions made about special ed services.
For example, the new federal education law requires districts to perform additional assessments when determining services for kids in early ed programs.
The State Board adopted these procedures, but the web site had the older eligibility standards online.
Dover says the agency doesn't know how many children may have been affected.
She says the impact of the inconsistencies is that parents would generally have more time and support as schools make decisions about the services their children receive.
"Actually more students could have been helped by the rules that schools have been following," Dover says. "As far as we know, no child would have been adversely affected by any of these discrepancies between the rules."
Vermont Family Network is a statewide group that advocates for children with disabilities, and in 2013 the organization helped change one of the rules so that schools have to act within 15 days to a parent request for a special ed evaluation.
Pam McCarthy is president of the group and she says the memo the Agency of Education sent out this week is confusing and it appears to water down what McCarthy thought was a clearly adopted rule change.
"What we're planning to do right now is to determine how they came to this conclusion, and also in terms of process, how it is that the secretary can sort of just say, 'Oh, we made a mistake. The rules you thought were the rules are not really the rules,'" McCarthy says. "Because it's kind of inconceivable to me that that can just happen in that way when we've been all going along for a few years now subscribing to what was there and understanding that to be working."
The agency says it's putting a new rulemaking review process in place to prevent this from happening again.
And it's asking school districts to use the corrected special ed rules.
But since the wrong version was sent to the Secretary of State, the Agency of Education has to officially make the changes through the legislative rule making process.
In the memo sent to school districts this week, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe says the agency is short-staffed and that they, "will not be able to undertake another rulemaking project in the immediate future."