The D.C. Council has unanimously approved a trio of bills designed to overhaul special-education services in the city, aiming to speed delivery of services to students with special needs and give parents better information and resources they can use to advocate for their children.
Special-education advocates said the bills, nearly a year in the making and approved Tuesday, will move the District closer to the services that higher-performing school districts and private schools provide to their students.
“I feel like we won a victory for D.C. special-needs kids and their parents today,” said Greg Masucci, a father who has struggled for many years to secure appropriate services for his 7-year-old son, who has autism.
David A. Catania (I-At Large), the council’s Education Committee chairman and the bills’ sponsor, called the legislation a “historic” response to long-standing problems.
“I have heard the desperation of parents, overwhelmed by the challenge of securing an adequate education for their children” and the “frustration of educators and school leaders, who don’t have the resources they need to serve their students,” said Catania, who is running for mayor.
More than 13,000 students in the District have disabilities that affect their education. The city has made strides during the past several years to improve services, adding dozens of special-education classrooms and reducing the number of students with disabilities who attend private schools at taxpayer expense. The number of due process complaints also has declined, but the quality of services remains a fundamental concern.
One in 5 special-education students in the city are proficient in reading and about 1 in 4 are proficient in math, according to 2014 city standardized tests. The U.S. Education Department classifies the city as a “high-risk” grantee that requires monitoring.
The legislation reduces the amount of time it should take between when a child is referred for special-education evaluation and when that evaluation must take place, from 120 days — currently the longest waiting time in the nation — to 60 days.
The bills expand eligibility requirements for early intervention services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays, opening such services to more children before elementary school begins.
For older students, the law requires schools to begin planning for the transition to adulthood earlier, when a student turns 14. The District currently starts the process when students are 16, which families say is too late for teens who need substantial support. The measures are slated to be implemented during the next three years to give schools time to prepare for the extra responsibilities and costs.
Early and timely intervention is key, Masucci said. He said it took a year after his son, then 2, was referred for a special-education evaluation to get a diagnosis that allowed them to pursue the services he needed.
“That could have been a critical year,” he said. “Months matter. Days matter. Weeks matter.”
Another bill improves parents’ access to information so they can advocate more effectively for their children. It requires that they receive relevant documents five days in advance of special education meetings, and it gives parents or experts the right to observe children in current or proposed classrooms.
It also shifts the burden of proof away from parents during due process hearings, requiring schools to demonstrate that placements are appropriate. If parents prevail, the law allows them to be reimbursed for expert witness fees, within limits established to prevent abuse.
The third bill makes it possible for charter schools to give preference in enrollment lotteries for students with a particular disability, encouraging charter schools to develop targeted programs. And it safeguards unspent special education funds — which have traditionally been used for private school tuition — so they instead can be used to improve the city’s special-education services.
Some advocates said they appreciated the collective process Catania used in drafting the legislation; it involved hundreds of hours of meetings and hearings with parents, experts and education officials from charter, private and traditional schools.
“We’re really happy that everyone came to the table for this,” said Lisa Ott, executive director for the D.C. Association for Special Education, an alliance of private and charter schools that provide special-education services. “We really think special education in the city is going to improve because of this legislation.”