- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As everyone perched on the upper levels of City Hall knows, the costs of providing special-education services to students is driving the costs of providing education services in the District. This morning, the D.C. Council is scheduled to convene a roundtable to expose how the school system got in such a quandary and how Mayor Adrian Fenty plans to reform it. Expanding some current special-needs programs and establishing new pilots are the overarching goals. Charter schools and vouchers are providing several options for parents. The need to restructure and retool is as imperative for special-needs students as it is for substantial academic sustenance to the general school population.

So what’s the major concern? Rising costs. As Chief Financial Officer Nat Gandhi testified last year, “special education accounts for one-third of all costs [for schools’[EnLeader] and the numbers continue to grow and exceed budget projections.” All of city’s special education numbers from 2005-06 are out of proportion with national averages:

m Overall enrollment: D.C., 18 percent; nationally, 13 percent.

m Per-pupil spending: D.C., $3,699; nationally, $1,114.

m Nonpublic tuition: D.C., 40 percent budget share; nationally, 12 percent.

m Nonpublic placement: D.C., 24 percent; nationally, 3 percent.

These and other numbers would shift toward the norm if D.C. mustered the political will to accomplish a few things. The first is a tuition cap or rate-setting mechanism. The city should have long ago developed a reasonable range of tuitions it would pay. Now, with so many fresh looks inside the system, is the perfect time to do just that.

The city also should build the capacity within the school system to mainstream more special-needs children. Council Chairman Vincent Gray and the mayor are keenly interested in pilot programs. We are, too, and we’re encourage the executive branch and the legislature to work in true partnership as the urgent need to reform special education finally gets the special attention it deserves.

The mission, of course, is to provide better services to students with special needs — but it’s been obvious that hasn’t happened. The city spends tens of millions of dollars on legal proceedings because lawyers exploit the weaknesses in the system. Unfortunately, none of the money spent on litigation aids students. Moreover, while tens of millions are wasted on legal proceedings, students in special education as well as traditional schooling are shortchanged: Private-school tuition consumes 40 percent of the special-ed budget and transportation another 31 percent.

We especially look forward to the roles of Mr. Gray and Council member Carol Schwartz — who have spent their lives in the public and private sectors tending to the special needs of special populations. The council should push hard on this one.

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