Special-Ed Tuition a Growing Drain on D.C.

Lafayette Elementary Principal Gail Lynn Main, in a kindergarten class with Martel Johnson and Chloe Leo, says 12 to 15 of her students have gone to private schools in the past three years since she lost a special-ed teacher in budget cuts.
Lafayette Elementary Principal Gail Lynn Main, in a kindergarten class with Martel Johnson and Chloe Leo, says 12 to 15 of her students have gone to private schools in the past three years since she lost a special-ed teacher in budget cuts. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Keating and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 5, 2006

The District spent $118 million last year on the tuition of special education students attending private schools, an expense that has increased 65 percent since 2000, and officials have covered the rising costs by transferring tens of millions of dollars a year from public school programs, records show.

The huge expenditures have become a major financial drain on a troubled school system that has cut programs and struggled to keep classrooms supplied. Although the 2,283 students sent to private facilities represent 4 percent of the system's enrollment, they are consuming 15 percent of its budget.

Under federal law, students with physical, emotional or learning disabilities are guaranteed a free education in an appropriate setting, and public school systems that cannot meet their needs must pay to send them to a private school that can. That happens often in the District, with hearing officers usually ordering the private school placements in response to parents' complaints about the services their children receive in public school. About one of every five special education students in the District attends a private school, compared with one in 11 in Prince George's County and one in 27 in Montgomery County.

Records show that D.C. school officials have regularly approved budgets that drastically understate the tuition payments, a pattern that has obscured the program's true cost. In the past five fiscal years, the tuition program has overspent its budget by a total of $173 million. To make up the shortfall, school officials have routinely frozen other spending in the middle of the year and taken money that was supposed to go to public schools for textbooks, teacher hiring, technology upgrades, building maintenance and other basic needs.

City and school officials said they could not fully account for the growth in the tuition spending, in part because their record-keeping is deficient.

"That's the thing that's so frustrating with special education: We've accepted dysfunctionality as a way of being," said school board Vice President Carolyn N. Graham, who recently chaired a board committee that studied special education. "We don't know how much we've paid. We don't know what we paid for."

D.C. school officials have promised repeatedly over the past decade to improve and expand public school programs for disabled students, which would cut the number of children placed in the expensive private facilities. But many administrators and teachers throughout the system say they fear that the spending trends are becoming self-perpetuating: As the tuition payments grow, there is less and less money to hire the teachers, therapists, social workers and other specialists needed to make the public programs more acceptable to parents and hearing officers hired by the school system.

That pattern has created some glaring inefficiencies in spending. At Lafayette Elementary School in Northwest Washington, for example, Principal Gail Lynn Main said 12 to 15 students have been sent to private academies over the past three years since she lost one of her two special education teachers during systemwide budget cuts and could no longer meet the students' needs. Based on the average tuition bill, the school system could have avoided spending $600,000 to $750,000 a year if it had given her the $42,000 she needed to hire the extra teacher.

In addition to the tuition bills, the District is responsible for reimbursing parents' legal fees when it loses a case before a hearing officer. Those two categories of expenses make up more than half of the District's special education budget, compared with one-third in fiscal 2000. And special education's share of the total D.C. school budget has grown from one-fifth to one-third during that period.

An analysis of spending records and a review of recent internal audits show the scope of the problems:

· The school system budget has underestimated tuition spending each of the past five years, underfunding it by $11 million to $59 million. School finance officials said they lacked accurate spending figures from previous years when those budgets were prepared, resulting in the faulty projections. For the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, private tuition is budgeted at $105 million and is projected to run more than $20 million over that amount.

· To cover the overruns, school officials have tapped whatever funds were available in other parts of the operating budget, usually transferring the money without leaving any record of where it came from. The records that do exist show that millions of dollars were shifted from accounts used for classroom supplies, teacher hiring and the school system's own special education programs.

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