- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

Whenever inquiring minds ask D.C. officials fundamental questions about special education, the responses usually depend on which agency supplies the answers. In fact, the special education program is in such a bureaucratic tailspin that parents actually move into the city just to exploit it. Who wouldn't, considering that the city offers what is essentially a $40,000 annual voucher to attend the private or religious school of the parents' choosing?
But if Congress were to merely look at the numbers, it would learn that the District's program is not very helpful to children with special needs and that its management is lousy and costly. D.C. Public Schools spent $6.1 million alone transporting special-education students to out-of-state, privately run schools. Some of those students are in residential programs, and per-pupil costs can run as high as $40,000. Other students are in non-residential programs, and the costs range from $8,000 per pupil to $19,000. So, no matter how you cut it, the District's costs are out of control.
The D.C. Board of Education, for what it's worth, recently began reviewing two applications for charter schools for emotionally disturbed students. If approved by the board, the two schools would help trim costs, especially for transportation. Still, the District's special-education programs must follow court mandates because of protracted court cases, so even charter schools would have to pass muster with the courts. Also, many "institutions are just holding tanks for those children. When they get out of school, they don't really have any skills," William Boston, a co-founder of Renaissance Academy and a psychologist with D.C. schools, told Vaishali Honawar of The Washington Times.
So, while charter schools might help make a dent, just a dent, in the nearly 2,000 special-ed students the city has in Maryland, what about the other 8,000 special-ed students? Indeed, that and several other troubling questions remain. Are the standards for entering special education too lax? What are the court mandates? Who is running this outrageous show the trial lawyers or the school system? Are public-school officials trying to foist on to charter schools what the public system cannot and does not want to do?
Now, to be sure, charter schools, which first opened in the city during the 1996-97 school year, have been bickering with city officials for adequate homes for their schools from the beginning. What's to guarantee that adequate facilities adequate, safe and handicapped-accessible facilities will be available for these new charter schools and their special children? The truthful answer, of course, is there is no guarantee. In fact, it is safe to say that, because of mismanagement and the lack of any sense of urgency, school officials will overspend on special education this year, just as they have in years past.



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