June 27

Education reformers — no matter their philosophy — usually agree that improving K-12 education depends on schools and parents. Most agree that schools must do a better job of delivering quality instruction by well-trained teachers, and parents must be engaged and highly committed to helping their children succeed.

In the District, there seems to be one exception to this agreed-upon formula: special education.

Every week, my organization hears from parents who have been barred from observing their child’s classroom, aren’t given information about their child’s progress or have a child who has been denied appropriate instruction — simply because of a disability.

Too many District children with physical, emotional or learning disabilities are simply not learning. Only 19 percent of D.C. special education students in public schools are proficient in reading and only 24 percent are proficient in math, according to the latest figures. And roughly 35 percent of students with a special education plan drop out of their D.C. public high school. These children are deprived of learning the basic skills they need to live independently, and the District is deprived of their talent.

Despite some progress in recent years, many District schools are still not meeting the needs of children with disabilities. Take one little girl we met last year who was in kindergarten at a D.C. public school. Her mother, Maria Madrid, was concerned when her daughter couldn’t keep up with her class. After talking with a pediatrician, she asked the school for an evaluation. The response? The school said she didn’t need one and that her daughter’s problems were caused by “cultural differences.”

Another mother, Sheila Murphy, tried to advocate for her teenage daughter who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Her D.C. charter school agreed to a plan to give her daughter extra help but then said there weren’t enough special education teachers available. As a result, her daughter had to repeat ninth grade and was on the verge of dropping out of high school before she turned to us for help.

These are not isolated stories. In the past year, we’ve met many parents who have asked for evaluations from their public school — only to be told that their children couldn’t read because they simply weren’t smart or trying hard enough. We’ve also received calls from parents complaining about charter schools that said their children couldn’t get special support and should transfer if their needs weren’t being met. Unfortunately, it often takes the threat of legal action for schools to conduct special education evaluations and provide students with the legally required support they need in order to learn.

Parents shouldn’t have to go to court so their children can get a good education. Fortunately, new momentum within the D.C. Council could mean they won’t have to.

Madrid and Murphy and dozens of other parents and advocates recently testified before the council in support of groundbreaking legislation that has been proposed to reform special education. The bills, developed with input from a large coalition of education experts and advocates, would help ensure that students with special needs receive timely evaluations. It would empower parents with better information about their child’s progress and give public and charter schools the flexibility and resources needed to provide quality, specialized instruction.

We hope that the council will quickly pass these common-sense solutions. The result of the current, broken system is that too many children are not learning to read, too many are dropping out of school and too many are not gaining the skills needed to work and live independently as adults.

That’s too high a price for these children — and for the District — to pay for inaction.

The writer is executive director of the Children’s Law Center.