- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2000

There is a special young girl who lives on my block, and because she is special she is one of 4,200 D.C. school children who are bused to school every day. At least buses are expected to pick her and the other children up every school day. Sometimes the buses come and sometimes the buses don't come.

And, even when the buses do come, sometimes the schools the special children attend are not "special."

What is worse is taxpayers fork over big bucks for students to attend residential programs in other states because the city cannot do the job itself. At last count, special education students who live in D.C. were attending programs in 16 states, including Maryland and Virginia.

It would be easy to make this stuff up, but as you will read later on there is no need.

For example, in early September I got an eyeful. While driving up to my block, I noticed a school bus and thought that peculiar since schools had not yet opened. After parking and carrying my groceries in the house I noticed the bus pulling up the street and then backing down again. It did so two or three times. Then the driver and another adult got out. With clipboards in hand, and the bus running, the two women walked up and down the street twice more looking at addresses. After canvassing the block on the third try, and obviously frustrated, they got back on the bus and drove away.

Now I could have helped them out. You know, I could have done my part of the "it takes a village" thing and all that. I could have pointed out where their special passenger lived. But the whole scene made me wonder. Who was more special, the lost bus driver or my young neighbor?

D.C. taxpayers spend about $117 million on tuition and transportation services for special children. Drivers are paid about $32 an hour. No one knows the cost of teachers, aides and psychological services for the city's 10,600 special children.

The 10,600 number is important. There are only 69,000 students in D.C. Public Schools, which means better than one in 10 has a disability emotional, physical, mental or learning. So, as you can see, the need is great.

But, to tell you the truth, any or all of those figures might be wrong. The numbers might be wrong because D.C. officials do not maintain accurate records on special education.

If you don't want to take my word, perhaps the D.C. Inspector General (IG) will convince you. The IG conducted an audit of the school system's special education programs and released its findings in November. The audit covered October 1998 through August 2000 and found inaccurate databases, overpayments for tuition and other contracts, and insufficient monitoring.

Regarding transportation, the IG offered several recommendations, including staggered school starts to allow bus drivers the flexibility to drop off children who start school early and then run another route to pick up other children.

With the help of parents and faculty at three schools serving special children's needs, Superintendent Paul Vance has implemented staggered start times this school year. However, that should be the policy not the exception and it probably would be if it were not for the unions. A caveat in the contract between D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and teachers unions gives the unions the final say on school hours. Of course the unions that control the bus drivers, and cafeteria and janitorial workers also oppose such changes.

Still, let us suppose that all 4,200 special education students are picked on time and dropped off at school on time each and every day. Well, guess what?

"During our audit, we found that students were attending schools that did not have special education programs or that did not meet the requirements for providing special education," said the audit, which is dated Nov. 22.

Auditors reached that conclusion by reviewing special education programs at 23 nonpublic residential schools. What it found was that 15 of those schools failed to meet the standards for providing a special education program. The total cost to taxpayers could not be determined, "however, costs for 6 of the 15 schools totaled $175,645. Additional tuition payments were likely paid through a parent attorney or a guardian educational advocate representative."

Need more evidence about how profound the deficiencies are? Check this out.

After examining student information systems (SIS) for special education students as recently as August, the auditors found that nearly 100 students placed in residential programs were not assigned to any school. In order to get accurate information, "we mailed confirmation letters to the parents or guardians of all 341 students identified as enrolled in the residential program. The results of the confirmation testing showed that of the 176 responses, 81 were returned due to bad addresses and 32 of the responses indicated that the student was not enrolled at the school listed in the SIS. Additionally, 1 confirmation letter reported that 1 child had been separated from DCPS for more than 2 years although the database listed the individual as a current student. Only 63 of the responses received confirmed that the student was enrolled at the listed school."

Pitiful, isn't it?

All this costs an estimated $10,000 per student, per school year times 10,600 students. Go figure.

This would be funny if it weren't so tragically indicative of the general failings of D.C. Public Schools.

Fortunately, Inspector General Charles C. Maddox tacked a very lengthy distribution list to this particular audit. In addition to the superintendent and usual authorities, such as the mayor, council and control board, Mr. Maddox also sent copies to more than half a dozen members of Congress.

It is hoped none of them tosses the audit on the shelf and lets it gather dust. Education, each of them has indicated recently, is too important.

I plan to remind them all of that from time to time.

Watch this space.

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