Special Education Still Lags In District

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

D.C. public schools continue to fall woefully short in meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities and physical or behavioral challenges, according to the report of a federal court monitor.

About 20 percent of the District's 10,977 special education students, including those in public charter schools, are enrolled in private schools because the District can't meet their needs, at a cost to taxpayers of about $200 million a year in tuition and transportation. Since 2006, D.C. schools have been under court order to wipe out a backlog of more than 1,000 decisions by hearing officers that was seriously delaying placement of students in special education programs.

But parents seeking help for children with special needs face lengthy delays and a labyrinthine school bureaucracy where records are often missing, communication is poor and officials are distracted by numerous other reform efforts launched by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, according to the court monitor, Amy Totenberg.

"Despite the best of intentions and enormous hard work . . . the Defendants have not come close to meeting the Consent Decree's objective performance benchmarks," wrote Totenberg, a former general counsel for the Atlanta school system. She was appointed monitor by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman, who presided over a class-action suit, Blackman v. District of Columbia, brought by parents seeking special-ed services for their children.

Totenberg's report was even more critical of the city's 81 public charter school campuses, where 2,307 special education students are enrolled. While the report did not offer specific examples, Totenberg said interviews with parents and advocates suggest that some charter schools may be discouraging families with disabled children from enrolling. She also said charter school parents, in turn, are sometimes reluctant to reveal their children's difficulties.

Friedman is scheduled to hold a status hearing on the case this afternoon.

While the initial case backlog from the 2006-07 school year has been eliminated, serious delays in subsequent cases remain, Totenberg said. According to the consent decree that emerged from the lawsuit, the city had until this past June 30 to execute all hearing officer decisions or settlement agreements that were more than 150 days overdue. But as of June 30, Totenberg reported, 411 of those cases were pending.

The cost of meeting special-ed needs continues to spiral upward, meanwhile. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) plans to ask the D.C. Council this month to shift about $9 million from various city agencies into D.C. school accounts to meet the mounting expense of private placement for special education children.

The issue is a critical one for Rhee, whose long-term plans anticipate saving some of the money now spent on private placements to invest in higher teacher salaries.

Totenberg also notes that the rapid pace of upheaval and change within the D.C. public school system under Rhee has made it difficult for her to devote appropriate attention to the issue.

"The Chancellor appears to have been engaged with so many other reform initiatives and 'irons in the fire' that she was not able to provide this unifying leadership and management," she wrote.

Dena Iverson, Rhee's spokeswoman, did not return an e-mail seeking comment.

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