A March 14 Metro article on the D.C. Board of Education's decision to place the burden of proof on parents in special-education disputes, requiring them to show that the school system's instructional plan for their child will not meet his or her needs, incorrectly said that the new policy would take effect immediately. The board will take a final vote on the policy after a 30-day public comment period.
D.C. Schools to Test New Special-Ed Rule
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
The D.C. Board of Education last night approved a controversial proposal that will place the burden of proof on parents who seek due-process hearings to challenge the adequacy of instructional plans for their special-needs children.
Board members, who have been divided over the issue since it was introduced late last year, debated whether the policy change would reduce the system's $300 million special education budget, as intended, or would make it more difficult for parents seeking help.
As a compromise, the board agreed to enact the policy for a year and then evaluate it. The measure, which takes effect immediately, will be evaluated to determine whether the number of due-process hearings has decreased, whether the school system is winning more of those cases and whether more disputes are settled in resolution meetings.
"Saving money would be the critical measure," said Vice President Carolyn N. Graham, who chaired a committee that studied how to improve special education services and reduce the budget.
For more than 30 years, board policy has placed the burden on proof on the school system, largely recognizing that its programs are deficient and that the schools often are unable to fully meet special education needs.
But in November, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Maryland law that puts the burden of proof in special education cases on parents, requiring them to show that a school district's plans will not meet their child's needs. Soon after, D.C. school administrators said they would seek to align their law with Maryland's.
Officials from the school system's general counsel's office initially suggested that the policy change could help reduce the system's special education budget. Those costs are driven in part by an inordinate number of due process hearings, which result in millions of dollars in tuition fees when the system is ordered to place students in private schools.
Last night, newly hired general counsel Abbey Hairston told board members that she was uncertain whether the new policy would save money. The benefit, she said, would be in giving parents the incentive to work harder to resolve their disputes without having to resort to due process hearings.
"In reviewing this, the savings of money is not the primary issue," Hairston said. "I think we need to find ways for people not to use litigation to solve their problems."
Board member William Lockridge (District 4) objected to the proposal, saying the system was attempting to punish parents and students rather than directly addressing its deficiencies.
"Until we build a strong special education system in the District, parents will feel uncomfortable with the level of services for the kids," Lockridge said. "Get it right and then we'll save money."
The Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit organization that represents large urban systems, recently said in a study that the District could save money by changing its burden-of-proof rule.
But special education advocates disagreed, saying that hearing officers often rule against the system because it has missed deadlines for assessing students or for completing their instructional plans and has lacked in-house programs that other systems typically offer.
Board members previously had said the policy change would require action from the D.C. Council. But Erika Pierson, deputy general counsel, said in an interview that only board action is required.