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Special-Ed Tuition a Growing Drain on D.C.
Basic Needs Take a Hit to Cover Costs of Sending Kids to Private Schools

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.

· The school system does not have a complete and accurate database of special education students -- a list of their names and the services each is entitled to -- which makes it difficult to check the accuracy of the bills that private schools submit. After looking at a sample of $10 million of payments, an audit by the city's chief financial officer found that $1 million involved cases in which the student's identity could not be confirmed or the list of required services was missing. School officials are planning to hire a consultant for $500,000 to identify the students whose tuition is being paid.

· There are no contracts between the school system and private schools, although several audits over the past five years have recommended that school officials negotiate such agreements to set limits on what the facilities can charge. The school board asked the D.C. Council this year to give the superintendent legal authority to set rates for services.

"The way it works now is a helter-skelter situation," said Ben Lorigo, who works in the office of the city's chief financial officer and oversaw two audits of the tuition payments. He said the city has been unable to control costs, hold private schools accountable or keep accurate spending records. Even after completing the audits in January, he could not be sure of the true amount spent on private tuition, he said.

The tuition spending figures in this story are based on a Washington Post database of payments made by the D.C. government since 2000 to each of the private schools that enroll D.C. students.

Lack of Resources

Children with learning disabilities make up nearly half of the District's more than 11,000 special education students. The next largest categories are emotionally disturbed, speech-impaired and mentally retarded children.

Like many school systems, the District has a goal of putting special education students in regular classes to the greatest extent possible. But such integration requires teacher training and support staff that D.C. public schools have not been able to provide. That has led many parents to seek enrollment in specialized private schools, where their children will be more isolated but are likely to receive far better services, children's advocates say.

"We have a lot of students who don't want to go to private schools, who want to go to their neighborhood schools," said Susan E. Sutler, an advocate who runs a law clinic. But "teachers don't have training or resources," she said. "They have a classroom with children with a variety of disabilities, and the classes are so big. They cannot meet the needs of the kids."

Miranda Brown felt the pain of being integrated into classes in which she had no chance to succeed. Brown, 16, who has a hearing impairment and learning disability, moved to the District when she was in seventh grade and was put in regular classes at Evans Middle School for several subjects. Unable to hear the teacher, she fell hopelessly behind. As her grades dropped, she became frustrated and eventually was suspended for fighting and outbursts, she said.

"They'd put me out of the class and send me to the principal," Brown said. "The school didn't give me a lot of help."

Explaining that they were short-staffed, officials at Evans never held a meeting to set up the individual education plan that all disabled children are entitled to receive, said Brown's mother, Mary Parker. So Parker filed a complaint, and a hearing officer ordered the District to send Brown to Accotink Academy in Springfield.

Brown, who has a shy smile and wants to be a beautician, is finishing her second year at the private school, where her grades have improved. She is in classes of no more than five or six students, compared with 20 at Evans, and has a one-on-one aide at all times. The District has spent $133,100 on her education at the academy, an unusually high figure because of how far behind she was and the amount of help she needs, Accotink officials said.

Herbert Douglas also was sent to Accotink after nearly completing 12th grade at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast. Douglas, a learning-disabled student, discovered that because Ballou had not given him instructors certified to teach the core subjects, he was far short of the credits needed for graduation.

A hearing officer found that the city wasn't providing the services called for in his learning plan and placed him at Accotink, where he received his diploma two years later at a cost to taxpayers of more than $53,800.

Since getting his diploma, Douglas, 22, has done office work and studied graphic arts at the University of the District of Columbia. He is now the plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging that many special education students who should be receiving diplomas are not given the chance to take the necessary courses.

Top-Level Facilities

The District has been under federal court supervision for a decade for violating the law that gives disabled children the right to a free and appropriate education. One class-action lawsuit involves the school system's failure to provide children with timely assessments, instructional plans and other educational services, and a second suit covers problems with bus transportation and timely payment of tuition bills.

A total of 118 private schools enroll D.C. special education students, with two-thirds of the facilities in the Washington area. About 85 percent of the students are in day programs, and the rest are in residential facilities.

The best of these schools offer computer labs on every floor, small classes, high-salaried teachers and behavioral specialists throughout the building -- most of it financed by D.C. taxpayers.

Rock Creek Academy rents five floors of a glistening office building on Connecticut Avenue NW. Its 251 students attend at the District's expense, and Rock Creek has received $25 million in D.C. funds over the past two years, more than any other private school.

Almost every inch of Rock Creek's bright white walls is covered with painted murals featuring the faces of students. The school recently created shiny new workbooks for a literacy program that uses hip-hop music as the basis for reading and writing exercises. While the city's public schools are cutting back on the arts, Rock Creek is teaching special education students to play drums and guitars and design artwork with the latest professional graphics programs.

"We find that a lot of our kids do well in the arts and music classes, more so than in academics," said Richard K. Henning, Rock Creek's president and owner.

Need for Limits on Costs

At Rock Creek and several other private schools, the District has little control over what it's being charged.

Maryland has established rates for private providers of special education services. In Virginia, the providers set their rates and school systems contract with them. The District has done neither.

A school doing business with Maryland or Virginia will not charge a higher rate for D.C. children. But about 25 percent of D.C. students enrolled in private schools are in facilities with no Maryland or Virginia children, and D.C. school officials have been warned in several audits about the need to establish limits on what they will pay.

School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey said past efforts to negotiate contracts failed because the private schools knew that the District could not easily remove students from a facility after hearing officers had placed them there. Instead, Janey and the school board have asked the D.C. Council for the legal authority to set rates, as Maryland does, believing that this will give the city more leverage.

The absence of contracts and rate-setting has contributed to the overruns in the tuition budget that have left school officials scrambling to pull tens of millions of dollars annually from other programs.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the city's financial office provided documents for $41 million in transfers that occurred in 2003 and 2004. The records show that most of that money came from a general account that pays for supplies, equipment and maintenance at individual schools. About $2.1 million was taken from Ballou, for example.

"They were so overbudget that they took it from whatever budget was available," said school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who, like other board members, said she had been unaware of the transfers. "It's the biggest scam in America."

For most of the $173 million shifted over the past five years, no records show where the funds came from.

The school system's chief financial officer, John Musso, who works for D.C. finance chief Natwar M. Gandhi, said that because the tuition payments were being made under court supervision, the financial office had to use whatever money it could find at the end of the fiscal year to pay the bills. Generating records would have resulted in delays, he added.

Musso said the office has compiled more accurate tuition spending figures this year because of better policies and training, which should alleviate the annual problem of severe underbudgeting.

Students Still Waiting

Meanwhile, the backlog of public school students waiting for special education services keeps growing. As of March, 2,521 students were awaiting services ordered by hearing officers, compared with 300 five years ago, according to figures that school officials provided to the judge overseeing one of the class-action lawsuits.

In December, after years of failing to meet the court's standards for delivery of services, the city signed a consent decree in which it agreed to spend $7.3 million above the school budget to hire 70 additional psychologists, social workers and therapists. School officials said they hope most of the employees will be hired by this summer.

Janey said the school system is paying a national search firm $100,000 to try to fill other vacancies in the special education department. Part of the problem is salary, educators said. Top pay for a special education aide in the District is $18,300, compared with an average salary of $32,000 for a "para-educator" in Montgomery.

The larger issue, Janey and other school officials said, is that the D.C. school system is classifying too many children as disabled, especially in the early grades, rather than giving them the extra attention that would allow them to succeed without that designation. More than 18 percent of the city's public school students are in special education, compared with 11 percent in Prince George's, for example.

"Special education is a mask for the real fix that's needed with regular education," said Janey, who took over as superintendent in September 2004.

In a school system that is 84 percent black, blacks account for 90 percent of the special education population and 84 percent of the students sent to private schools.

In addition to a lack of resources, turnover among top administrators has kept the school system from solving the chronic problems, educators and lawyers say. The system has had five superintendents in the past decade. New leaders launch initiatives to reform special education, then quit before seeing them through.

The most recent head of special education, Ray Bryant, left in March 2005 and has not been replaced. Janey said he has yet to find the right candidate.

"Nobody can stay in that job more than a couple of years because of the whole crisis mode of the thing," said Main, the Lafayette Elementary principal, who worked under Bryant's predecessor. So many parts of the special education system are broken, she said, that "everything is a top priority" and any issue left unaddressed -- personnel vacancies, missing information, program shortages -- erupts into a crisis demanding immediate attention.

"There's very little time to be proactive, [to do] future planning," she said.

Cafritz and other school officials said the District may have no choice but to make a much larger investment in public programs while still paying the private tuition -- financing both special education systems long enough for the reforms in the public system to take root.

"We can get to the point where we can spend a normal amount [on special education], but we need to have a normal school system first," Cafritz said.

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