- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2001

The D.C. school board is weighing the creation of charter schools for students with special needs after being stung by a $30 million cost overrun in special education.
"Applications for charter schools that provide special education will be looked at more favorably by the board," said board member Tommy Wells, District 3. The board might approve such charters to open as early as next year, Mr. Wells said.
Court mandates require the District to bus its special-education students to private schools that meet their needs, sometimes as far as Annapolis and Delaware. As many as 1,830 children were placed in private schools during the 2000-2001 academic year, at an average cost of $36,000 per pupil.
Board members and special-education activists say people often move to the District to take advantage of the requirement, further pushing up costs for the public school system. "Right now, we are paying tuition for a number of children who would never set foot in a D.C. public school," said one board member who wished to remain anonymous.
The District has one charter school that serves students with special needs the Joz-Arz Academy in Northeast for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students. The school board is hoping that private schools catering to special-education students, such as the Lab School in Northwest, will come forward with charter proposals, Mr. Wells said.
Board members said they are trying to get a handle on reducing special-education costs after D.C. schools overspent their overall budget by $80 million in fiscal 2001, which ended yesterday. The $30 million special-education overrun consisted of $24.6 million in overspending for tuition and $6.1 million in transportation expenses.
Fearing such overruns next year, board members said they needed to explore alternatives, such as charter schools. "They are the only entities with the wherewithal to get started quickly," board member Laura Gardner said.
The D.C. school board is one of the two chartering authorities in the city, the other being the Public Charter School Board. Between them, they have opened 37 charter schools on 42 sites in the District since 1996. Last month, the D.C. school board revoked the charter for one school, New Vistas, after charges of mismanagement.
As many as 2,500 referrals for special-education students were received last year, said Ann Gay, special-education director for D.C. public schools. "No one could anticipate the number of initial referrals. We reduced the number of children in nonpublic programs last year, but the rate of increase in enrollment was not factored in," she said Thursday night at a public round-table meeting on special education.
As many as 17 percent of the city's nearly 68,000 public school students require special-education services, she said. Besides the children in private schools, children with special needs also attend four focused public schools in the district: Prospect Learning Center, Mamie D. Lee School, Sharpe Health School and Taft School.
Board members said charter schools would allow the special-education students to be closer to home. "One of our selling points would be schools within the District," Mr. Wells said.
Special-education activists, however, said they were not sure charter schools would be a better alternative. "I would prefer it if they focused on strengthening special-education programs within public schools," said Queen Mother Shemayah of the Families and Friends of Special Children.
Schools Superintendent Paul Vance did not return calls seeking comment, but sources said he supported charter schools in the past.
Advocates say charter schools can well serve all kinds of students, including special-education students. But while charter schools focused on special education was not a "bad idea in itself, the board needs to be careful that it does not just take on what DCPS can't or doesn't want to do," said Robert Cane, director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a local nonprofit group.
Charter schools looking to open in the District have encountered difficulty in finding good buildings they can use. Linda McKay, executive director of D.C. Public Charter Schools, said she hoped the city would regard the effort to open charters for special-education students as a partnership.
"This would also be a great opportunity for the private sector to partner with charter schools," she said.

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