- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 22, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is in the process of formulating a new blueprint for special education reform that includes an expansion of voucher programs.

And whether Miss Rhee stays or goes after the January 2011 mayoral inauguration, the next mayor will likely follow her lead.

The chancellor has three goals: Keep students in the D.C. public system, trim spending and remain in compliance with court orders. Regarding the last issue, the city is positioned to exit some aspects of a court degree on Oct. 1.

As part of her reform package, Miss Rhee is considering using publicly funded vouchers for special-needs students whose parents opt out of the system and enroll their children in private schools. Miss Rhee also wants to build new facilities, provide high-caliber services and reduce the citys reliance on private schools for special-needs youths.

Implementing those and other reforms is being determined by a feasibility study that will consider several options, including vouchers.

“DCPS would offer scholarship programs to families of students in need of full-time placements,” Miss Rhee said when she unveiled her proposal earlier this month. “This program would allow parents who voluntarily opt out of DCPS programming to purchase special-education services from a network of pre-approved private schools.”

Other changes under consideration include rules and policies on student evaluations, and tuition and transportation costs. Truancy and behavior problems are being re-evaluated as well.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his chief opponent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, have said they support increased educational and mental health counseling programs for special-needs youths.

There are an estimated 12,000 special-education students in the city, and one in four of those students attends a private school at a cost to D.C. taxpayers of an estimated $280 million a year.

Miss Rhee also is proposing a new rate schedule for tuition and related services for special-needs students. The rates will start with the uniform funding formula for all students, whose base amount is $10,466 per pupil.

The new document is titled “Certificates of Approval for Nonpublic Special Education Schools and Programs Serving Students with Disabilities Funded by the District of Columbia and Special Education Rates Proposed Rulemaking.” In it, Miss Rhee proposes adding more than $28,000 to the per-pupil formula for students enrolled in a private day school or program. The adjustment could cap the base tuition costs for a special-needs student at $38,730 per year.

By comparison, an undergraduate student at Harvard University will pay more than $50,000 next school year, though the average student gets most of that through need-based grants and scholarships.

Some D.C. public charter and traditional schools are exclusive to special-needs youths. St. Coletta, a public charter school by the Anacostia River in Southeast, offers kindergarten vocational programs, for instance. An estimated 80 percent of its students scored at or above proficient on standardized math and reading tests in 2009.

Students at Mamie D. Lee School, a traditional school that enrolls prekindergarteners through12th graders, were 67 percent proficient in reading and 72 percent proficient in math in 2009.

Currently, the citys school bus fleet only transports special-education students, whether they attend private or public schools, including schools located in neighboring counties. Keeping many of those students in D.C. public schools could mean substantial savings to taxpayers.

Personnel costs are another example. This fiscal year, the Fenty administration funded 1,570 full-time employees, but next year proposes adding 97 workers. Meanwhile, local transportation spending on special education stood at an estimated $77 million this fiscal year, but with the rising costs of fuel, overtime and other factors, is expected to jump to more than $89 million in fiscal 2011, according to the chief financial officer.

Although officials bolstered services and “improved our ability to identify students in need of services at a younger age,” Miss Rhee said, much work remains.

“We still have a long way to go, but parents can be proud of the work we are doing to ensure that students with the greatest need can receive a world-class education in a District of Columbia public school,” she said.

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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