Fenty outlines plans to cut special-ed costs and return students to public schools

Speaking with The Washington Post's Nikita Stewart, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee hints that her tenure as schools chancellor hinges on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's reelection bid over D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

The administration of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, seeking to whittle the annual $280 million cost of sending special education students to private schools, said Thursday that it will study several options to return as many as possible to the city's public schools.

The options, which officials said they will present to parents in meetings over the next few weeks, include forming public-private partnerships to build new facilities, co-locating "schools within schools" in joint ventures with private operators, expanding special education services in neighborhood schools by establishing separate classes for students who need full-time services, modernizing the city's special education schools and retraining staff, and offering scholarship-type grants so parents can buy special education services on the open market.

Fenty announced the initiative 90 minutes after his rival in the Democratic mayoral primary, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, unveiled his schools platform. Fenty's plan was designed in part to address recent criticism from special education parents who have expressed alarm at District attempts to "reintegrate" private school students without what they describe as adequate advance notice or careful consideration of their needs.

The city's deputy chancellor for special education, Richard Nyankori, apologized in May for mishandling the program. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education has proposed a new rate structure that could limit D.C. payments to private schools. Some private schools have told parents that they would be unable to serve their children under the modified rates.

The District pays for about 2,700 disabled students -- about a quarter of its special education population -- to attend private schools in the Washington region because it has been unable to meet their needs. Those schools include the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, the Ivymount School in Rockville and Kingsbury Day School in Northwest Washington. Students are also sent to residential facilities across the country. Nyankori said Thursday that that was about to change.

"Time and time again, we have been questioned about our capacity," Nyankori said. "Today should mark the first day where we end the questioning about capacity."

Nyankori and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee deflected suggestions that the planned outreach to the special education community, to be followed by a consultant's study, should have come before the reintegration and rate-setting efforts.

"We could wait to do things incrementally," Nyankori said. "But we know right now we have what it takes to get great services for students."

Asked where parents with special-needs children could turn for public school options, Rhee mentioned three elementary schools: Barnard, Burroughs and Walker-Jones, and one middle school, Shaw at Garnet-Patterson.

On the rate-setting issue, Rhee said there will always be students whose conditions require that they remain in full-time private school placements.

"But we need to make sure we are managing those relationships carefully and that the nonpublic [schools] can't take advantage of the district by just charging us whatever rates they want for whatever services they want."

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