In the 12 years that D.C. public school officials have tried to get a transportation system to work for a few thousand special education students, Apple created a line iPod devices, several versions of the iPhone and the iPad; Facebook attracted 750 million members; and physicists using the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland created quark-gluon plasma (the densest form of matter ever observed).

Yet, still, in Washington D.C., making sure that 3,500 special education students get to school and back home in a timely manner seems to be a mission impossible.

My colleague Bill Turque writes here about a new report from the court-appointed master overseeing the District’s transportation service that says the system is a mess. Buses used to ferry the special education students to public and private schools around the Washington region have been badly maintained due to managerial incompetence, and kids were transported during the last school year in poorly maintained or inspected buses.

What’s more, said the master, David Gilmore, officials in the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the agency responsible for the service, knew it, and he is worried about new problems when school opens on Monday for the 2011-12 academic year. Turque quoted OSSE officials as saying the issues were being addressed and that the bus fleet would be safe for children.

There is something sadly familiar about this. In fact, I remember covering this same story so long ago it feels like another century. Oh, wait, it WAS in the last century; on Jan. 12, 1999, I wrote in a Washington Post story:

“Top D.C. school officials plan to replace the contractor that provides most of the bus drivers who ferry special education students to school after more than three dozen unqualified drivers were recommended for firing in the last month, sources in the school system said yesterday.

“The decision comes as two investigations examine the schools' transportation department, including contracts to firms that provide bus drivers and attendants -- one probe by the D.C. inspector general's office and one by school system officials, according to sources inside and outside the system.”

Later that year then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman brought in a new transportation director and changed the contractor that provided the bus drivers and attendants. That worked well, didn’t it?

For some nutty reason, D.C. officials can’t seem to get this transportation system for special ed kids right. Things went so wrong that parents in the 1990s brought a class-action lawsuit to get things straight. Some things, such as on-time arrival performance, were improved over time, and, last year, the judge in the case said that control for the system could slowly be returned to the District. But the system started to slide and the transfer of control was delayed, Turque reported.

Why does this keep happening? D.C. officials have over time cited the turnover of personnel responsible for the system, the age of the bus fleet, and the difficulty in creating a schedule in which some students are picked up at one home in the morning but delivered to another in the afternoon.

That all might have made sense a decade ago. But after all this time, it seems fair to ask if top D.C. officials have cared enough to ensure that the people running the system are competent to get the job done. The evidence suggests the answer is “no.” If officials can’t get kids to school and home on time, it makes you wonder how they can figure out the far more complicated tasks involved in improving the troubled system.

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