D.C. considers special-education overhaul

The District has made progress toward complying with federal special-education law, the U.S. Education Department reported last week, but the city continues to be one of a handful of jurisdictions that lag far behind expectations for serving children with disabilities.

In the parlance of the federal government, special education in the city “needs intervention.” But in the words of D.C. parents, advocates and politicians, special education is in crisis and requires systemic changes to ensure that the city’s 13,000 special-needs children are getting the services they legally deserve.

The D.C. Council is considering wide-ranging legislation that would speed the delivery of services and change the balance of power between parents and schools, handing families new tools in disputes over appropriate services for their children.

Parents and activists have said the legislation is essential, but city officials say some key provisions would take years to implement successfully, and school leaders object to other measures they say could lead to a spike in frivolous lawsuits.

The three bills were introduced by Education Committee chairman and mayoral candidate David A. Catania (I-At Large), who points to the low graduation rate of students with disabilities — 38 percent complete high school on time compared with 64 percent citywide — as evidence of the need for change.

“This is a crisis,” he said at a recent hearing. “It’s one that demands our attention.”

For decades, the District has struggled to provide adequate special-education services, and it has yet to fully emerge from court oversight. It has landed on the federal government’s “needs intervention” list for eight years running and is considered a “high-risk grantee” for federal special-education funds, its expenditures subject to additional oversight.

The city allows schools 120 days — more time than any state in the country — to complete special-education evaluations for children believed to have disabilities. City schools have made “marked progress” in complying with that timeline, according to the federal education agency, but still do not meet it in every case.

Catania’s legislation would cut the timeline in half, which advocates say is crucial to ensuring that children are helped as early as possible.

The current timeline lets young children languish without the help they need, falling behind academically and becoming increasingly frustrated with school, said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, which represents children with special needs and which helped draft Catania’s legislation.

“The timeline sets children up to fail,” Sandalow said.

Nathaniel Beers, chief of specialized instruction for D.C. Public Schools, said the school system supports shortening the timeline but would need until the 2017-2018 school year to comply with a 60-day requirement.

“Many of these changes will take significant investment and time for appropriate planning to implement them with fidelity,” Beers said.

The legislation also would 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 help children catch up to their peers before they enter kindergarten.

State Superintendent of Education Jesús Aguirre cautioned that the expansion would cost taxpayers close to $60 million a year, a cost Catania said he believes the city should bear.

Perhaps the most contentious parts of the legislation involve rewriting rules for disputes between parents and schools over appropriate services.

Many parents say that the city’s legal framework puts them at a disadvantage in such disputes, forcing them to bear the burden of proof — and the cost — in showing that a school has failed their children. In such cases, parents are often seeking to force the school system to provide additional services or pay for tuition at a private school.

The legislation would shift the burden of proof in such cases to schools and give parents — who now have to pay out of pocket for expert-witness fees — the ability to recover those fees if they prevail.

Molly Whalen, a D.C. parent and special-education activist, said she and her husband won their case against the school system but still had to pay $30,000 in fees. “This legislation would level the playing field so families don’t have to mortgage their homes to secure appropriate services for their children,” Whalen said.

But several charter-school leaders and attorneys for charter schools said that the change could prompt frivolous lawsuits. Martha Cutts, executive director of Washington Latin Public Charter School, said her school had to spend $3,000 fending off such a lawsuit, which the parent wasn’t aware an attorney had filed.

Catania said he is open to tweaking the legislation to tamp down the possibility of frivolous lawsuits, including setting limits on the fees parents can legally recover.

The Education Committee is slated to mark up the legislation July 10, before the council’s summer recess begins, and send the bills to the full council for a vote sometime in the fall.

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