- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2001

The District of Columbia's troubled services for special-education students are wasting millions of dollars now paid to private schools, and its school system must take over the job of teaching these students itself, a preliminary D.C. Council committee report says.

The 20-month study found the public school system has not solved its underlying problem it does not have adequate special-education programs.

Three reports circulating within the school system and D.C. government back that up.

Currently, almost a third of the District's 3,400 special-education students go to school in private and residential centers, costing the District about $74 million per year, according to the Multiyear Plan for Special Education developed by the school system in November but never released.

The D.C. Council report admits that, "since 1999, special education officials have built their administrative capacity over what was then a skeleton operation… . [They have] made progress in the past two years and should be applauded for gains made."

But the committee restated what the D.C. inspector general found in a November report that some of the $74 million went to private and residential facilities that were not adequately monitored.

"As a result of insufficient monitoring, 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," the inspector general's report says.

The IG also found that the school system paid at least $175,645 in tuition to private education centers that did not provide adequate programs.

The committee acknowledges that the school system has been trying to bring students back into the D.C. public school system but says that the school system has "only vague plans for building special education programs within its schools while [failing] to demonstrate that the system has made local school programming a priority."

The report also says: "DCPS mentions its determination to increase offerings in local schools, yet provides no explanation of the barriers to such programming or description of DCPS procedural, planning and budgeting changes needed to overcome the barriers."

Meanwhile, the committee commends the District's public charter schools for boosting special-education services, while recommending increased funding for both public and charter schools.

The report examines the District's special education services from August 1999 to November 2000 and focuses on assessment and placement, transportation, charter schools, compliance with federal law, and the institutional commitment to deliver services.

Among the report's other findings:

n Without bringing special-education students back to public schools, it will be impossible to significantly decrease the $10,000 spent per student on transportation.

n The school system loses a vast majority of its legal fights with parents for due process violations, which diverts sizable resources away from actually teaching children.

n The school system needs to increase staffing and oversight of special-education services to ensure proper and timely assessment and cost control.

The report includes recommendations such as establishing public-private partnerships, modernizing facilities and developing incentives for administrators to develop special-education services for students in their schools.

Meanwhile, the report's public release has been delayed by weeks. Although it has been distributed to the D.C. Council, the Special Council Committee on Special Education is trying to revamp the report, which it says is inadequate, and wants to create a new "final" version.

"It's a disappointment and has to be redone," said Willie Lynch, spokesman for D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat and co-chairman of the committee.

"Special education is in chaos. We set up a special committee to study it and come up with recommendations that could impact the problems. Those are missing from this report," Mr. Lynch said.

Mr. Lynch said the committee intends to make changes and expects a final version within the next two weeks.

But one source familiar with the committee and its report defends both as valuable tools in the effort to revamp special-education services.

"Until the committee was established, there was immense problems with special education and no scrutiny," the source said. "The committee forced school officials to work harder and come to the council and answer questions. Without that pressure, nothing would have begun to improve."

That hasn't pacified city activists.

"Why did they take more than a year and still not have a final report?" asked Dorothy Brizill, a city activist who has posted the report on the Web site of her organization, D.C. Watch.

"This report is a series of generalities about problems we already know about," she said. "What were they doing all that time? I know what they weren't doing meeting regularly and investigating what was going on."

Ms. Brizill said the report will come out so late, after the budget is "set in concrete," it won't have any financial impact.

"We don't know if we should be spending more or less on special education," she added. "This document is too late to give us guidance."

Some applauded the council committee's refusal to accept the "inadequate" report as its final version. Others complained that the D.C. Council has failed to oversee the school system properly.

"The council has never shown good oversight on education issues," one city official said privately. "That would require a thoroughness and a perseverance that has never been evident."

"I wonder who has even read the report," the official mused.

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