- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2011

D.C. officials are adamant: The spiraling costs for special education must be cut.

Deputy Chancellor for Special Education Richard Nyankori said in an interview that he has several ideas on how to go about it, including a scholarship plan and other programs considered by his departed former boss, Michelle Rhee.

But vouchers may prove to be the key point of departure with Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who, like the unions that backed his mayoral run, has opposed the idea. Mr. Nyankori insists a clash is not inevitable.

“We share some views,” Mr. Nyankori said during a lengthy interview this week with The Washington Times. “Special-education families have no better advocate than Mayor Gray. I think it’s awesome.”

Both Mr. Gray, who was sworn in Sunday, and Mr. Nyankori, who has known Ms. Rhee since they taught school in Baltimore, want to “mainstream” special-ed students in D.C. public schools and make early-intervention testing a mainstay so educators can begin addressing learning and behavioral problems early on.

While Mr. Nyankori said current schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson continues to move in both directions, the city must address a potential $440 million budget deficit that could mean cuts to special education and other school programs.

The deputy chancellor’s task may not be helped by the scheduled release Friday of a court-ordered evaluation that found despite progress in some areas, “core problems” remain in implementing a three-year-old agreement to improve the system. The city was praised for improved tracking of the 11,000 special-needs children in its public and public charter schools.

But the evaluators also faulted city special-education officials for putting too heavy a burden on families to arrange educational programs for their children and for declaring cases for individual students resolved prematurely in a bid to make the city’s overall numbers look better. Mr. Nyankori has disputed the conclusions, which were first reported Thursday in The Washington Post.

The evaluation is part of a court oversight program instituted following a class-action lawsuit against the city that was settled in 2006.

Since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, taxpayers have spent about $142 million on nonpublic special-education programs, including about $15,000 per student on tuition for students who attended specialized private schools. Room and board alone for those students has cost an additional $510,000.

But overall spending is down compared to last year because special-needs students are being integrated into their neighborhood schools. The lower totals come despite rising transportation costs for special-needs children, now about $90 million and trending upward.

Phone calls and e-mails to Mr. Gray’s office and Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright went unanswered by press time.

“School money is a sacred cow, but we have to stop the bleeding,” Ward 8 council member Marion Barry said. “Transportation costs are awful.”

Mr. Barry said there are 17 special-education students in the Tyler House complex in Northwest, and they take 16 different routes to get to and from their classes in the morning and afternoon.

“That’s a problem,” he said.

Mr. Nyankori maintained that proposals already on the table will help ease those concerns despite the fact that educating all special-needs children means “we’re never going to get away from segregated schools” that serve their needs.

As special-education reform now stands, officials are casting a wide net that includes:

• Building five new special-education facilities. “We’re looking at public-private partnership opportunities,” Mr. Nyankori said. “We want to move ahead but not create new debt for the city. Situating these high-end schools where [students] live will not take one dollar out of instructional money.”

• Modernizing buildings and expanding programs at existing public schools. “Some private programs are in row houses. One school smelled of urine,” he said.

Another of Ms. Rhee’s proposals would offer scholarships to parents who opt out of the District’s public schools.

“I think we owe it to ourselves to look at such a program,” said Mr. Nyankori, who cited the work of a similar voucher program in Florida.

The McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities program allows parents to send their children to a private or public school of their choice, including religious schools.

In the meantime, evaluating preschoolers, mainstreaming special-needs students and building partnerships for new programs are Mr. Nyankori’s top priorities.

“Integrating special-needs students into traditional schools will curb transportation and tuition spending,” he said. “It is being done and done well. Kids can thrive in their neighborhood schools and learn to ride public transportation.”

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