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Just a few years ago, about 20 percent of the District's 11,000 special education students were enrolled in private schools because the District couldn't meet their needs. These private school enrollments cost taxpayers about $200 million a year in tuition and transportation. But since the start of this academic year, DCPS has limited private school placements and tried to "mainstream" more students into public schools. DCPS says it's proud of its progress, but there are many parents who feel their children's needs aren't being met. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza talked with Metro Connection's Rebecca Sheir to explain the changes. Following are highlights of the conversation.
On why DCPS started to bring special education back into the city's public schools:
"DCPS's new philosophy is 'Better Services, More Kids, Closer to Home.' Last year nearly 1,600 students were placed in private schools; this year it's approximately 1,200, and DCPS wants to reduce that number even more. Nathaniel Beers, the head of special education services for DCPS, says there are instances where private placements are best. But he also says students are generally better served when they are close to their communities."
On how much of the decision is being driven by money:
"Money is definitely part of it. In the past, DCPS spent as much as $150 million per year on these private placements and approximately $60 to $90 million more on these students' transportation. If you look at the breakdown per student, and of course the amount varies widely, it costs approximately $36,000 to educate a child with disabilities in D.C. public schools and twice that in a private setting."
On what teachers are saying about the larger number of special education students in their classrooms:
"I spoke with Nathan Saunders, the head of the Washington Teachers Union, and he says educators are already under so much pressure to teach, so when you add in children who have very specific needs, it's challenging. You may have a child who acts out and disrupts the entire class, or you may have one who has autism and you have never been trained to deal with his or her needs. Saunders says the success is uneven."
On how the parents of the special education students feel about their kids moving out of private schools:
"I think it depends on what the child's needs are. I've heard from parents who are willing to try this out and see how it goes because they like having their child go to their neighborhood school. But there are parents such as Greg Masucci. He went to the city council to speak out because he doesn't feel his child's needs are being met at all."
[Music: "Little Wing" by The Electric Guitarcorporation from 22 Strings]