- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

When it comes to public education, calls for more money are often hard to ignore. But what must happen — when school budgets increase substantially while student outcomes remain static? As the District’s chief financial officer under then-Mayor Marion Barry, Tony Williams knew that the opportunity to raise the academic standing of D.C. schoolchildren was at hand. Congress and the D.C. Council had established laws creating public charter schools, and the 1995 legislation signed by Bill Clinton had forced the city’s elected leadership to rethink every aspect of D.C. Public Schools, including governance, accountability and financial management. In addition, Congress passed legislation that offers federally financed vouchers to low-income students, the very demographic that liberals say would most benefit from fully funded schools.

A full decade after all the “new” money, the District is at another crossroads. By every measure, students in traditional public schools still don’t measure up to their national and regional counterparts. Moreover, while the charter-school movement advances, poor families avail themselves of vouchers and enrollment in traditional schools continues to decline, Mr. Williams’ replacement as chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, has identified a new potential financial problem — one that threatens to derail instructional reform: special education.

Local expenditures for public schools have risen from $561,925 in the 1998-99 school year to an anticipated $1 billion this school year. ( The $1 billion does not include federal money, but it does include funding for public charter schools.) Since then, overall enrollment has dropped from 75,000 to 72,000. Yet, it’s worth noting that the enrollment numbers speak bluntly about what’s not going on in traditional schools — most notably that charter-school enrollment rose from 3,000 in the aforementioned school year to a projected 17,350, while enrollment in traditional schools declined from 71,900 to an anticipated enrollment of 54,700. With enrollment declining in traditional schools, what’s driving up the costs in D.C. Public Schools? Simply, special education.

In fact, while only 18 percent of the DCPS student population is designated for special education, it receives 30 percent of the budget, while 82 percent of traditional schooling only receives 70 percent of the budget. Most special-education dollars are spent on:

Non-public tuition. Last school year, D.C. taxpayers spent $94 million on private education for special-ed students, or 40 percent of the special-ed budget.

Transportation. Busing for those students cost another $72 million, or 31 percent of the special-ed budget. There is no school-busing program in the District. DCPS provides transportation only for special-education students. If those children must be transported outside the city, then D.C. taxpayers must provide and pay for that transportation.

Litigation. Legal proceedings alone cost $14.5 million, because parents and their lawyers exploit the fact that DCPS has failed to establish effective special-education public policies and programs.

Instruction and administration. Only $35 million of the overall $235 million special-education budget actually reaches inside the classrooms.

The unfortunate bottom line: Of the $781 million local dollars spent last year by DCPS, fully one-third, or $235 million, was spent on special education.

Indeed, the District’s numbers are higher on every aspect of special education compared to the national averages:

Enrollment. DCPS, 18 percent; nationally, only 13 percent.

Per-pupil spending. DCPS, $3,699; nationally, $1,114.

Non-public tuition budget share. DCPS, 40 percent; nationally, 12 percent.

Transportation budget share. DCPS, 31 percent; nationally, 7 percent.

Non-public placement share. 24 percent; nationally, 3 percent.

Per-pupil cost of due-process proceedings. DCPS, $303; nationally, only $26.

The calls to spend more have been met, but the expenditures reveal a crisis within the overarching state of emergency of DCPS.

The CFO has succinctly briefed all pertinent city officials and proposed solutions. We urge the incoming leadership — Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty, D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray and School Board President Robert Bobb — to stand behind reform as they realign education public policies with budgetary expectations. The need to reform special-education programs is as great as the need to raise the academic performance of the children enrolled in traditional academic programs. Obviously, they must first bolster the school system’s capacity to mainstream special-education students, a move that would drastically reduce the expenditures for nonpublic tuition and transportation. To that end, we strongly endorse some of the recommendations made by the CFO, particularly establishing a “rate-setting mechanism” for the nonpublic schools that educate D.C. children, better relations between parents and schools and better monitoring of other school districts so that everyone is held accountable. The opportunity to lift up D.C. children is again at hand. There are no new or arbitrary goals. Our call remains the same: Educate.

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