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Special education atop D.C. to-do list

City must curb costs, fulfill needs

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Michelle A. Rhee may be on her way out as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, but the fights she waged over the city's education policies are likely to linger long after she is gone.

For City Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, Ms. Rhee's most prominent critic and the all-but-elected next mayor of the city, the first fight may be over something he and the departing chancellor actually agreed on — curbing the city's spiraling costs for special education.

On the campaign trail and during his listening tours leading up to the Nov. 2 midterm elections Mr. Gray has trumpeted his priorities to mainstream special-needs students, curb transportation expenses and cut operating and tuition costs — three issues that Ms. Rhee has already established a blueprint to achieve.

But the departing chancellor's plan relied heavily on publicly funded education vouchers — something Mr. Gray has opposed.

Ms. Rhee's departure, which she made official last week, became a foregone conclusion when Mr. Gray decisively defeated her patron and staunchest defender, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, in September's Democratic primary. After drawing both brickbats and praise during her 3½ years as schools chief, Ms. Rhee will step down at the end of October, with longtime aide Kaya Henderson becoming chancellor on an interim basis.

Mr. Gray is a staunch proponent of charter schools, which enroll 39 percent of D.C. public school students, according to preliminary data. But he endorses the move by President Obama and the Democratic-led Congress to phase out the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which had been providing vouchers worth up to $7,500 to low-income families.

Because Congress declined to reauthorize the program, only currently enrolled city students will continue to receive federal vouchers. Mr. Fenty wanted the funding program to be expanded to include new students.

Mr. Gray's position on vouchers is at odds with Ms. Rhee and Mr. Fenty, and with the many parents and groups that support vouchers as a key component of the "school choice" approach offering city students the option of both traditional public schools and charter schools.

Mr. Gray often butted heads with Ms. Rhee and the mayor over such issues as school budgets and the firing of hundreds of teachers, but the three agreed that special-education costs had spiraled out of control and must be reined in.

Ms. Henderson has in the past supported Ms. Rhee's approach to special education, which includes keeping students in the D.C. Public Schools system and trimming spending. The Rhee plan, which was announced this past summer, proposed a new voucher program for special-needs students whose parents opt out of the public system and enroll their children in private schools.

"DCPS would offer scholarship programs to families of students in need of full-time placements," Ms. Rhee said when she unveiled her proposal in July. "This program would allow parents who voluntarily opt out of DCPS programming to purchase special-education services from a network of pre-approved private schools."

Other changes include rules and policies on student evaluations, tuition and transportation costs.

Ms. Henderson, who served as Ms. Rhee's deputy and was her first appointment in 2007, was lead negotiator in the groundbreaking pact with the Washington Teachers Union.

In an interview with welovedc.com on Friday, Ms. Henderson said her agenda is the same as Ms. Rhee's and that she will carry it out "at the same pace" and with the same "sense of urgency."

Special education reform is one of her top priorities.

"[H]aving Chairman Gray's attention on this issue will help us to drive it forward with more gusto, but we're committed to doing it," Ms. Henderson said. "We're building capacity internally to serve those students. There's a tiered approach to bringing these students back; we don't think we can bring everybody back. It's well under way, and we're going to continue to pursue it aggressively."

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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