Unanimous D.C. Council panel advances special-education overhaul

July 10

The D.C. Council’s Education Committee on Thursday unanimously supported special-education legislation intended to speed services to children and give parents more leverage in disputes.

The legislation, which is scheduled to go to the full council for a vote in the fall, is contained in a package of three bills that D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) proposed in March.

The legislation would cut in half the time schools have to evaluate a child referred for services. D.C. schools now have up to 120 days to offer students an evaluation, the most time in the country. Schools would also have to provide parents with information before special-education meetings and develop transition plans earlier to better prepare students for adult life.

Educators would also try to identify and serve children with disabilities earlier and more efficiently to improve their chances of being successful in school. The legislation would expand the number of infants and toddlers who are eligible for special services, building on a program expansion initiated last year by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).

Catania, the committee chairman and a candidate for mayor, said the three bills address critical problems in special education. He said families often feel powerless when they try to advocate for their children and seek help for “all-too-often undiagnosed” disabilities.

Special-education services in D.C. long have been in turmoil, and the city historically paid tuition for thousands of special-needs children each year to attend private schools. The school system has been working to build up its special-education programs and reduce the number of private placements.

Federal officials recently noted improvements on many fronts, but they still found the District to be out of compliance with national requirements and in need of intervention. Of particular concern is low academic performance.

Judith Sandalow — executive director of the Children’s Law Center, which represents children with special needs and helped draft Catania’s legislation — also credited public schools with making significant improvements.

“Five years ago, or 10 years go, we would have laughed at this legislation because it would have been so unrealistic,” she said. With a new foundation in place, she said, the legislative package is realistic and could serve to push the schools “to move faster and farther.”

The committee gathered comment from parents, agencies and experts and made revisions to the proposals, including giving the city more time to introduce some major changes.

The earlier deadlines for evaluations would not go into effect until July 2017, because schools officials said they needed more time to prepare. Some schools have struggled to conduct evaluations within the current time frame, although compliance has improved in recent years.

In most cases, the legislation shifts the burden of proof in disputes about special-education services to the schools and away from parents, who typically have less access to expertise and information. But under a revision, reflecting school leaders’ concerns, parents will continue to have the burden of proof in cases in which they seek tuition reimbursement after unilaterally moving a child out of public school.

The revised legislation also seeks to discourage frivolous lawsuits by allowing the school system to recover expert witness fees if it prevails in a lawsuit deemed unreasonable or without foundation. If parents win, they, too, would be able to recover expert witness fees, a provision included in the original proposals.

The committee abandoned a proposal to move the hearing officers who decide such cases out of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Many parents contend that the education office could be biased, but the agency is making changes to the hearing process and sought to retain that function. The revised bill seeks instead to make the process for selecting hearing officers more transparent.

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