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D.C. Refusing To Pay Tuition Hikes for Disabled Students

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District of Columbia school officials, trying to curb the cost of sending disabled children to private schools, have balked at paying tuition increases.

Schools responded by billing parents, who took the dispute to court.

In June, the school system was ordered to pay full tuition for two such children. Another suit, filed by the parents of 75 other pupils, is pending.

Public school officials, voicing a national concern, contend that the cost of private placements is out of control.

"You have to understand we pay a whole lot of money in private school tuition, and we can't continue to pay rates that are exorbitant,'' said Karen Hinton, a school spokeswoman.

The school system, which has 6,600 disabled students, spends $13 million of its $43 million annual special-education budget on services for 487 privately placed students.

Students attend private schools either because the school system has no programs to meet their needs or because school officials fail to meet deadlines for finding them appropriate public school placements.

Stuck With the Bill

Last year, District of Columbia school officials decided they would accept tuition hikes of no more than 4 percent for the 1992-93 school year. Ms. Hinton said 35 of 38 private schools serving pupils at public expense agreed to that compromise.

But the three remaining schools billed parents for the difference between the tuition they set for that year and the amount the district paid.

"The first year it amounted to a couple of hundred dollars, so nobody got upset,'' said Matthew Bogin, a lawyer who represents the parents who filed suit.

But by the end of the school year, the bills had added up to $1,000 or more--and the projected gap for the 1993-94 school year was even greater.

Parents of two affected students filed suit in May, arguing that federal special-education law entitles their children to a "free, appropriate education.'' On June 3, a U.S. District Court judge agreed, concluding that the tuition increases were reasonable.

Mr. Bogin said he filed a second suit this month because school officials balked at paying full tuition for other pupils.

One cause of the district's runaway tuition costs is that school officials often have difficulty meeting a court-imposed, 50-day deadline for placing disabled students. That provides grounds for parents to ask a judge or hearing officer to place a child privately, and officials argue that this produces inequities as well as straining their budget.

"Many of our children in public programs have more severe problems than those 487,'' Ms. Hinton said. "They don't have money to pay for an attorney to fight for private schools.''

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