Even among large urban school districts, the District of Columbia’s special education system has problems that seem nearly intractable.
With a new superintendent and a recently announced plan for restructuring and improving Washington schools, the district is poised yet again to try and tackle them.
But the task is daunting. Special education students make up about 20 percent of the 62,000-student system’s enrollment, and the proportion is growing.
But what is a last resort for special education disputes in most school systems—a due-process hearing governed by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—has become the norm here in the nation’s capital.
The time-consuming legal process is available to parents who dispute the individualized education program established for their child under the IDEA, or who seek an alternative placement because they believe the school system is not meeting their child’s needs.
Officials of Washington’s school system report getting dozens of requests for due-process hearings each month. In the 1999-2000 school year, the school district held 419 such hearings. The entire state of California conducted 197 special education due-process hearings that year, according to statistics compiled by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
When due-process hearings are held, the Washington district is most likely to lose. About a third of the city’s special education students are enrolled in private schools or other school districts at public expense as a result of those hearings. In its proposed $1.02 billion fiscal 2006 budget, the school system has $105.4 million earmarked for private school tuition for special education students, about 10 percent.
So when District of Columbia Superintendent of Schools Clifford B. Janey announced his plans for improving the troubled system last week at the sparkling, new $25.6 million Kelly Miller Middle School, he made sure to include changes for special education.
“We must reduce the costs of out-of-district placements,” Mr. Janey said in a May 2 speech to a crowded auditorium. In an interview later, he added, “It’s been a major concern for us.”
He said his plan, which came with few specifics that night, included “providing a more inclusive environment for students with disabilities and providing in-district services for students who are currently placed outside the system at tremendous expense.”
A third goal is to develop “best practice” models so that other schools in the system can emulate successful programs, he said.
Mr. Janey, a former superintendent of the 34,000-student Rochester, N.Y., public schools, took charge of the District of Columbia system in 2004.
Longtime observers of the school system say it could take years to overcome the bad feelings built up between parents and school officials over special education.
And in the midst of trying to make changes, the school system will also have to look for a new leader to head its efforts to improve special education. The former director of special education reform in the district, Raymond Bryant, left in March after two years to become superintendent of the 7,200-student Elmira, N.Y., school district.
“It’s like trying to turn an ocean liner,” said Mary Levy, the director of the public-education-reform project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Ms. Levy was one of the authors of a report called “Separate and Unequal: The State of D.C. Public Schools 50 Years after Brown and Bolling.” The report, released in March, examined several aspects of the public school system, including special education, in relation to the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decisions in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and a parallel case from Washington, Bolling v. Sharpe.
“While DCPS has incorporated the basic mandate of IDEA into its educational structure, its special education program suffers from systemic deficiencies, including a lack of DCPS-operated programs, outdated facilities, and inadequate and uncertified staff,” the report said.
Lawyers who take advantage of the system to secure private school placements for students who are low-performing, but do not necessarily have learning disabilities, are another problem, according to the report.
Another local advocacy group, the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, examined the special education system in a 2003 report that specifically studied the due-process hearings.
“The mistrust is huge,” said Deborah Spitz, the deputy director of DC Appleseed, which works with volunteer teams of lawyers and experts to study and make recommendations on city issues. “On the one hand, you have administrators who say these attorneys are all out to get us. On the other hand, you can talk to just as many parents who can tell us the saddest stories about their children not getting services.”
“I’m sympathetic to all parties,” Ms. Spitz added.
Brooke Lehmann, a partner with Childworks, a consulting firm in Washington that works on issues related to children and families, has served as a voluntary parent advocate for families with children who need special education services. She believes that the school system will not be able to tackle its problems with special education until the city realizes it’s not just a school problem.
Schools, Ms. Lehmann said, are one of the primary sources of health services for Washington’s children. Other city agencies need to bolster their services to children, so that parents do not need to rely on schools to provide assistance for children with severe needs who cannot get help any other way. Ms. Lehmann said she has worked to get children into special education programs because it was the only way they could receive counseling for some of their needs, she believes.
“The fact is, these are children of this city,” Ms. Lehmann said. “So it can’t be isolated to one agency.”