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D.C. Legislator Introduces Bills To Overhaul Special Education

The Children Law Center's Judith Sandalow and D.C. Council member David Catania.
WAMU/Andrew Katz-Moses
The Children Law Center's Judith Sandalow and D.C. Council member David Catania.

Students in special education programs in D.C. would gain additional rights and be provided with additional services under a package of legislation introduced Tuesday.

The proposals, introduced by Council member David Catania (I-At Large), include changes such as one requiring students with special needs to be evaluated within 60 days, instead of 120.

Parents would be given written information to review before meetings and be able to visit their child's classroom, and the District would expand eligibility for early intervention services and reimburse low-income families for the cost of expert witnesses during education hearings.

"Children get special intervention too late, parents get too little information and schools have too limited a capacity to provide them with that education," says Judith Sandalow of the Children's Law Center, which partnered with Catania to write the bills.

"Every week at Children's Law Center we get dozens of calls. Calls from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all of whom are saying, 'My child's not learning in school and I need help,'" she says.

Close to 13,000 of the 84,000 students attending D.C. public and charter schools receive individualized educational programs, a common marker for special education students. The majority of those — some 8,100 — attend traditional public schools.

According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, over 4,200 students suffer from specific learning disabilities, while 1,400 have speech or language impairments, 1,200 have emotional disturbances and 1,100 have developmental disabilities.

Parents and advocates have long complained of the quality of the services that special education students receive, and for years D.C. placed students in private schools as required by a federal law. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Mayor Vince Gray have moved to place more students in public or charter schools, and in late 2012 a federal judge lifted oversight of the city's busing of students to private schools inside and out of the city.

In 2013, over 1,800 special education students remained in private schools, down from over 2,000 in recent years.

Catania, who is also running for mayor, says the outcomes for students with special needs in D.C. schools are appalling. According to 2013 test results, 19 percent are proficient in reading and 24 percent are proficient in math.

"The statistic that is most ingrained in my mind is the graduation rates of our children with special needs and especially within DCPS with less than 40 percent of special needs graduating on time, he says. "That has to resonate."

Catania says there's a great deal of mistrust of D.C. schools among parents of children with special needs. Another measure he's pushing for is to have independent, neutral hearing officers, rather than ones under the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

"They've been some who have been concerned that because OSSE oversees the contract for these administrative judges that the process isn't fair and transparent. That OSSE puts pressure on its agents to rule against parents," he says.

He's also calling for charter schools to take more responsibility for students with special needs, rather than, as he says. "rely on DCPS." The proposals allow charter schools to establish a preference in the school lottery system for students with particular disabilities so they can create targeted programs.

Catania says he hasn't calculated what all these changes might cost the city, but says that inaction could have a higher price tag over the long term.

"That's an area of expertise for the Chief Financial Officer. But I'd also caution people to keep in mind what is the collective cost of our historical failure to address special needs?" he says.

Catania chairs the D.C. Council's education committee. Last year he introduced a package of seven bills aimed at the city's public schools. Catania says he would like to hold hearings on the proposals in June and have the changes voted on before the end of the year.

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