In D.C., children with special needs have to wait longer than their peers in any state to receive an evaluation by the city’s school system, but this week the D.C. Council debated a bill that would cut that wait time in half.
Under current D.C. law, a student suspected of having a learning disability has to be evaluated within 120 days, longer than anywhere else in the country. Advocates say that the four-month-wait delays access to vital special education services and leaves children behind their peers.
"The school took the full 120 days to complete her evaluation," said Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children's Law Center, of one of her clients. She was speaking at a hearing on a bill that would require the evaluations to be completed within 60 days, on par with nearby Fairfax County.
"At that point, much of Eva’s first-grade year had passed. She’s now almost a full year behind in reading," said Sandalow, who helped Council member David Catania (I-At Large) write the bill.
Catania, who is running for mayor, included the provision in a trio of bills targeting the city's special education system, which serves 13,000 students. (There are 84,000 students in D.C.'s public and charter schools.) The bills would expand the criteria for early interventions, clarify the responsibilities at public and charter schools, and make it easier for parents to challenge their child's evaluation.
"Students are often not getting the support that they need, families often feel powerless in ensuring appropriate services for their children, teachers and principals, likewise, often don’t have the training and resources they need," said Catania.
Advocates for the bills said that special education students — who post lower graduation and proficiency rates than their peers — need to be identified earlier and be offered necessary services so that they don't fall behind.
Katrina Johnson, a Ward 8 resident, spoke of her son Ryan, whose evaluation by a charter school came late, delaying services he needed.
"My son is really behind because of all the missed services. He is four years old and has the speech ability of a 2-year-old. The school has done a disservice to my son this year, and I am still not confident that my son is receiving all of the services that he is supposed to be receiving," she said.
Dr. Nathaniel Beers, who heads special education services for D.C. Public Schools, said that while the school system has improved how it identified and educates students with learning differences, he was concerned with how portions of the bill would be implemented.
"Currently, we know that more than 50 percent of our evaluations are completed within 90 days or less, so we are on our way to making this the norm programmatically," he said. "The condensed evaluation timeline will require a specific adjustment to our policies and procedures... we will need two years from the date of the passage of this bill to successfully implement."
Charter school officials said they were more concerned with provisions shifting the burden of proof during hearings over special education evaluations and services, saying that it could lead to frivolous lawsuits.
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. Still, less than 40 percent of special education students currently graduate on time.