December 21, 2016

By Ava Bartley, Advocacy and Engagement Director

Chances are you’ve heard about “Dear Colleague” letters at some point, but if you’re still not sure what they are, you’re probably not alone.

A “Dear Colleague” letter is a guidance document issued by a federal agency that helps explain and interpret existing laws and regulations. About 10 years ago, the Federal Office of Management and Budget issued the “Final Bulletin for Agency Good Guidance Practices,” which told agencies what kinds of additional policy guidance they could issue and explained the process they needed to follow to issue it.

Do “Dear Colleague” letters have the same legal force as federal laws or regulations? No, they are non-binding. But should you pay attention to them? Absolutely. Why? Because guidance documents like “Dear Colleague” letters are basically policy statements that give helpful guidance in interpreting existing laws and rules that can be extremely complex and hard to understand. They’re also a good indication of the position agencies will take when enforcing their own laws and rules.

As laws become more complex, agencies seem to be turning to this form of guidance more often to help interpret existing laws and rules.

The following are brief descriptions of just a few of the “Dear Colleague” letters relating to special education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] that have been issued by the U.S. Department of Education in the last year or so:

IDEA Applies to Children Enrolled in Virtual School – August 5, 2016

This document describes the IDEA’s requirements that local education agencies must meet in order to ensure they are providing a free and appropriate public education [FAPE] to children experiencing disability in virtual schools.

Behavioral Supports for Students with Disabilities – August 1, 2016

Do you have a student who experiences behaviors in the classroom because of their disability, including those that result in suspensions or other disciplinary measures? This one may be meaningful to you. It states that the behavior needs need to be included in the list of needs an IEP team has to meet, and the IEP team must consider using strategies like positive behavioral interventions [PBI] and supports in order to ensure a child receives FAPE.

IEP Goals for Children with Disabilities Must Align with State Grade-Level Content Standards – November 16, 2015

With a stated purpose of ensuring all children with disabilities are held to high standards and high expectations, this Dear Colleague letter clarifies that IEP’s for children experiencing disabilities have to align with state academic content standards for the child’s current grade and must include specially designed instruction and enable the child to have access to – and make progress in – the general education curriculum.

There have also been several “Dear Colleague” letters and other guidance documents issued recently about the Every Student Succeeds Act [ESSA], among them the following:

Stakeholder Engagement in Developing State Plans – June 23, 2016:

This “Dear Colleague” letter stresses the importance of stakeholder engagement in the development of state plans to implement the ESSA, and identifies several strategies states could use to meaningfully engage a diverse group of stakeholders in the process.

This one is especially relevant in Oregon right now because Oregon is in the middle of its process for developing its ESSA State Plan. For more information, go to the Oregon Department of Education ESSA web page. You can review a draft framework of Oregon’s ESSA State Plan and take a survey to provide your valuable input. (FYI: This survey closes January 16, 2017!)

To learn more about advocacy and ways parents can get involved in the legislative process, join us for the webinar, FACT Oregon Presents Legislative Advocacy 101 with the GO! Project on February 9, 2017.