Mayor Adrian M. Fenty yesterday beefed up his proposal to take over D.C. public schools by promising to overhaul special education. If he gains control of the school system, the mayor said, he will expand the placement of disabled children in regular classes, bring special education into compliance with court rulings and cut transportation costs.
The plans, contained in a 10-page memo to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), came in response to questions raised at a public hearing last month on legislation to reduce the power of the Board of Education and give the mayor's office direct control of the 55,000-student school system.
Gray called special education a "grave concern" and noted that Fenty's initial 48-page takeover legislation contained "only 11 lines" about special education.
"To his credit, the mayor now has worked to add some additional substance to that," Gray said, adding that he has not reviewed the mayor's latest proposals.
Improving services for special education students is among the most challenging problems facing the troubled school system. In 2005, the system spent $118 million to send 2,283 special education students to private facilities, a cost that had increased 65 percent since 2000, records show. Although special education students represented 4 percent of the system's enrollment, they consumed 15 percent of the system's budget.
The council held its sixth public hearing on Fenty's school takeover legislation yesterday, including testimony from an advisory panel on special education appointed by former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). That panel, chaired by downtown business leader Joseph D. Sternlieb, supported some pieces of Fenty's school governance restructuring, but it urged the council to allow the school board to maintain authority over some education matters.
Fenty's deputy mayor for education, Victor A. Reinoso, was a member of the school board for two years, and many of the administration's proposals mirror recommendations made by the board in a "white paper" report on special education delivered to Superintendent Clifford B. Janey early last year. Most of the board's recommendations, however, have yet to be implemented.
In a brief cover letter, Reinoso described Fenty's plan as a "draft" that will be fleshed out with input from parents and nonprofit groups such as D.C. Appleseed.
"We view this action plan as the beginning of a dialogue on the best, fastest, and most efficient ways to immediately improve special education services," Reinoso wrote.
Fenty proposes to establish up to 12 pilot schools in Wards 5, 7 and 8, which have the highest proportion of students referred to special education. A team of education and medical specialists would analyze the schools and develop specialized plans to improve services.
D.C. school officials have acknowledged that some students -- particularly black males -- who misbehave or perform below grade level are erroneously referred to special education. Fenty is proposing to expand "student support teams" -- aimed at giving teachers strategies to address the students' behavior and academic problems -- to all schools, including public charter schools.
Fenty also wants to require that assistant superintendents, principals, teachers and support staff are trained on "differentiated learning" to accommodate more special-needs students in regular classrooms.
Kim Y. Jones, executive director of Advocates for Justice and Education, which supports parents of special-needs students, said she likes Fenty's approach. However, she added, the plan would not work without the hiring of numerous special education teachers, psychologists, social workers and behavioral specialists to work with regular education staff in the schools.
Fenty's proposal also calls for signing contracts with service providers that would lock in costs. He also wants to work closely with officials in the special education transportation office to reduce busing costs. The department is run by a federal court-appointed administrator as part of a settlement in a class-action suit filed by parents of disabled students.
"I would certainly, without question, welcome a dialogue," said David Gilmore, the transportation office administrator.