Catania proposes sweeping special-education legislation

D.C. Council member David A. Catania introduced a package of legislation Tuesday meant to overhaul special education services by speeding up their delivery to students and strengthening parents’ rights in disputes with schools.

Catania (I-At Large), who chairs the council’s Education Committee and is running for mayor, said the legislation is a response to a “crisis” in D.C. special education, pointing to graduation rates and math and reading scores that lag far behind the city average.

The District has struggled for decades to serve the city’s special-needs children, who now number nearly 13,000. And although the city has made strides in recent years, it has yet to fully emerge from court oversight, and parents and advocates say services continue to fall short.

Several of the proposed measures are changes that activists have sought for years, such as cutting in half the time schools have to evaluate a child referred for special-education services. The District allows schools to take up to 120 days for that first evaluation, the longest span in the nation.

The legislation also would further expand the number of children younger than 3 who are eligible for special services, building upon an expansion initiated last year by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). Advocates say such early intervention can change the trajectory of many children’s lives, helping them catch up to their peers before they enter kindergarten.

Catania’s proposals also attempt to change the balance of power between families and schools, giving parents the right to bring experts into the classroom to observe their children and allowing parents who bring successful complaints against schools to recover expert witness fees.

Currently, parents bear the burden of proof in disputes about services their children should receive; under Catania’s proposal, that burden would be with the schools. The hearing officers who decide such cases would no longer be part of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which is overseen by the mayor and which many parents believe is biased. Instead, the officers would be in the independent Office of Administrative Hearings.

Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit organization that represents children with disabilities, said her group fields dozens of calls each week from parents and guardians who are worried that their children aren’t learning. The legislation, she said, could bring “dramatic change.”

“Too many special education students graduate without the basic skills they need to support themselves, and far too many do not graduate at all,” said Sandalow, who helped develop the proposals.

The proposals grow out of a review of laws in other locations and interviews with dozens of advocacy organizations and individuals. The measures may give parents more avenues to sue schools they believe are failing to provide services, but Sandalow said that’s not the point. “All of these reforms are aimed at reducing litigation and improving special education,” she said. “It doesn’t benefit anybody to litigate.”

The bills incorporate two ideas Gray previously proposed, both addressing the ability of the city’s fast-growing charter schools to serve children with special needs.

Charters now can transfer legal responsibility for their students’ special education services to the traditional school system, which school system officials say is unfair and unworkable. The legislation would end that practice, making all charter schools responsible for their own students.

Charters also would be allowed to establish a preference in the enrollment lottery for students with particular disabilities, which some advocates say would help small schools better predict students’ needs and develop programs to serve them.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said administration officials received the legislation Tuesday and needed time to review it before commenting on specific policy proposals. But Ribeiro objected to Catania’s characterization that special education is in “crisis.”

“It’s clear that the process is moving forward and improvements have been made under this administration,” Ribeiro said, accusing Catania of using “histrionics” to advance his election-year ambitions. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the ball is moving down the field.”

In recent years, the city has improved its compliance with federal special education law and has added dozens more classrooms dedicated to children with specific disabilities.

The number of families bringing due-process complaints has fallen significantly, as has the number of complaints that have advanced to an administrative hearing. The Gray administration is on track to deliver on a promise of cutting in half the number of students who go to private school at taxpayer expense because their needs can’t be met in public schools.

But the city remains a “high risk” federal grantee, subject to additional monitoring and oversight from the U.S. Education Department. Many families complain that they can’t get the quality services they believe their children need and that students have been returned to public schools that aren’t equipped to serve them.

Fewer than half of students with disabilities finish high school with a diploma or a certificate of completion; 19 percent are proficient in reading and 24 percent in math, according to 2013 city tests.

Molly Whalen has two boys with special needs, one in a private school and one in a charter school, and said that the city has become much better at processing paperwork, ensuring that certified teachers are in classrooms and other “logistical and formulaic things.”

“But we’re still not graduating students. We’re not preparing them for vocations. We’re not preparing them for what the next steps are,” she said. “That’s a huge crisis.”

Whalen said she recognizes that the legislation proposed Tuesday comes against a political backdrop but if it means more attention for often-ignored special education issues, she said, “I’ll take it.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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