Judge Might Reduce Federal Oversight of D.C. Special-Ed

By Jenna Johnson and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 4, 2009

A U.S. District Court judge said Friday that he might reduce federal oversight of the District's special education system "in the next year" because officials have improved the speed at which complaints are resolved about educational services for students. But he said substantial concerns remain.

Judge Paul L. Friedman said the most recent evaluation of the special education program was "extremely thorough, and, in many aspects, it's a very positive evaluation." Still, Friedman said, the District schools and the state superintendent will have to improve more before he reduces federal oversight of the system.

During the 2008-09 school year, D.C. schools and the state superintendent's office devoted more staff members and resources to special education and reduced the backlog of cases in which hearing decisions had not been implemented.

The school system is working toward cutting the time it takes to implement hearing decisions. Many have to be done within 30 days. From July 2008 to June, the District's rate of "timely implementation" was 60 percent -- up from about 34 percent from July 2007 to June 2008 but still not at the requirement of 80 percent. That requirement rose to 90 percent in July.

The District has been under federal court orders for more than a decade as part of class-action lawsuits brought by parents of children with special needs.

A federal court monitor said problems remain within the system in spite of increased compliance.

"The general environment of special education in the District remained a difficult one," wrote monitors Amy Totenberg and Clarence J. Sundram in a 115-page evaluation that was discussed at the court hearing Friday morning. They wrote that shortages of special education teachers and support staff continue to hinder "responsive" education.

They also said the District still lacks proper data tracking systems for special education students that can be accessed and used by charter and private schools. About 30 percent of the District's nearly 9,300 special education students are enrolled in private schools because their needs are not being met at public or public charter schools. The cost to taxpayers in tuition and transportation is about $200 million a year, and the number of students placed in private schools increased by more than 200 last year, according to the evaluation.

Last school year, 97 special education students were reevaluated and removed from private schools. But as of Sept. 2, only 18 of them were enrolled in public schools, according to school system data, Totenberg said. Richard Nyankori, deputy chancellor for special education, said the data might not include all enrollment information because private and charter schools report theirs later than public schools. A majority of the students were probably enrolled somewhere, he said, and "didn't merely vanish into thin air."

Last week, the District backed away from plans to pull special education students from a Springfield private school, repeating its concerns about the quality of instruction but giving in to demands from parents that their children be allowed to continue to attend the school.

Special education students at Accotink Academy can continue attending if they choose to do so, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said in a letter to the academy Wednesday. But Nickles said the District will continue to monitor the school and remove students if benchmarks are not met.

The school has worked with District students for more than 15 years and would have to close if it lost them, said founder Elaine N. McConnell, a longtime Fairfax County supervisor.

"I feel like our reputation has been smeared," she said, "and I want some restitution."

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