THE DISTRICT may not have made much progress this year in winning the right to budget autonomy or voting representation in Congress, but it made significant strides in showing its capabilities in managing local services. The decision by a federal judge to end court supervision of the transportation of special- education students is an important reminder of just how far the District has come from the awful years of an incompetent government that made a mockery of home rule.
Declaring it a “historic” day, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman signed an order Dec. 19 that returned control of the school transportation system to city officials. The decision in the 17-year-old Petties v. D.C. case, which involved complaints about the District’s ability to safely transport special-ed students and meet its obligations to private schools serving these students, comes at a time of improvement in the city’s historically troubled effort to educate students with special needs. In addition, part of the Blackman/Jones v. D.C. case, which involved complaints about individualized educational plans for special-ed students, was dismissed in July 2011, and school officials seem to be more sure-footed about how to meet the needs of these students.
What’s most encouraging about the decisions involving special education is that they didn’t occur in isolation. Notable progress has been made in a range of other social services that, as with special education, had been under court supervision because of decades of chronic and inexcusable failures by D.C. government. In February, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan ended 37 years of court oversight of the city’s mental health system with dismissal of the Dixon v. Gray lawsuit. And this month the independent court monitor overseeing the city’s child welfare services said in a report that the agency is closer than any time in the past two decades to escaping federal court oversight.
When Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) took office, seven class-action lawsuits had led to court oversight of various social-service programs; 2½ of those cases have been dismissed. Mr. Gray wisely left in place, and further supported, the personnel and policies that were working, and where there were failures — the previous administration’s aggressive challenge to court jurisdiction comes to mind — he changed course. Witness, for example, a court monitor’s observation of child welfare services that there has been “a lot of change . . . in a short amount of time” under capable new director Brenda Donald, who was recruited by Mr. Gray.
Improvements are still needed in areas such as services to the developmentally disabled and to troubled juveniles, but, if the administration’s recent success is any measure, there are sure to be other milestones to be celebrated.
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