The District of Columbia’s public school system still lacks adequate special education programs—and school officials haven’t identified ways to fix the problem in their four-year special education plan, two elected city leaders conclude in a new report.
The 72,000-student school system “has only vague plans for building special education programs within its schools and has failed to demonstrate that the system has made local school programming a priority,” says the report, which was released this month by two District of Columbia Council members who spent a year studying special education in the city.
To solve problems in the district’s special education services, the council members, Kevin P. Chavous and Vincent B. Orange, call for privatizing more services and giving the council more oversight over the special education system, among other steps.
The report highlights problems in the troubled system from 1996 through 1999, a period that it says was marked by “institutional inattention; poor record-keeping; sizable backlogs in assessments, placements, and reassessments; and due-process hearings.” It also argues that the department lacked leadership, having been without a director for three years before July 1999. In those three years, the special education division consumed one-third of the school system’s budget to serve about 10,000, or less than one-seventh of its students.
The council’s two-person special education committee was created in 1999 to help guide the district’s response to a 1995 class action, which drew attention to the special education program’s problems. The lawsuit was filed by parents who claimed the system violates the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which entitles students with disabilities to a free and appropriate education.
The U.S. Department of Education has been monitoring the district’s program, and a federal judge has appointed a special master to oversee a jointly agreed upon improvement plan.
The head of the district’s special education division, Anne C. Gay, said the report echoes a lot of past criticism, and that the division had made more progress than the committee acknowledged.
“Reading the report made me feel like I could have written it myself in 1999,” said Ms. Gay, who became the assistant superintendent for special education in July 1999. “Overall, I think there aren’t any huge revelations. I appreciate that they say we have made progress,” she said. “But it’s untrue that we are not focusing on program design.”
The report says that the district spends $50 million out of the school system’s $770 million budget to send special-needs students to private facilities, most located outside the city. The committee recommended creating partnerships that would allow private providers to serve children within the district.
“Bring those kids home,” said Will Lynch, a spokesman for Mr. Chavous. “If we had the right services here, we wouldn’t have to spend exorbitant costs on special education elsewhere.”
Ms. Gay said she supports public-private partnerships. The report urges the school system to remove any legal barriers to charter schools that serve students with special needs, and to inform chartering authorities about needs not being met by the system.
“We’ve done a lot with the charter schools, but there was a real confusion about what was allowed to happen because we were both a local education agency and the equivalent of a state agency,” Ms. Gay said. “We are trying to make sure everyone is clear on the law.”
The report praises the district for reducing the backlog of students waiting for assessment, reassessment placements, and due process hearings. But it maintains that an “unacceptably high” number of students were not being placed until after their parents had taken the system to court.
The report contends that the school district did not present a schedule for renovating school buildings to make them more accessible for students with disabilities.
“The school system should move aggressively to modernize facilities to allow special education programs to be located in district schools,” the report says.
The report also points out problems in transportation. The district projected that it would transport nearly 3,400 students this school year at a cost of about $10,820 per student.
The committee recommends contracting out transportation services, establishing a training and maintenance center for drivers and attendants, and decreasing the number of students using district buses by encouraging students to walk or take public transportation when possible. It also recommends that the district reduce the number of routes in which a driver transports a single student.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Report by City Leaders Criticizes D.C.'s Special Education Services