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District of Columbia Tries Again


It's been a few years since I've written about special education in the District of Columbia, but every time I do so, I'm astounded at just how dysfunctional that system is. While parents in other school systems may be fighting over getting appropriate services for their child, in D.C., the fight often begins with the most basic need: getting a child properly assessed.

Even with an assessment and a diagnosed need for special education, there's no guarantee a child will actually get the services called for in an individualized education program. And if the services aren't provided for, there's no guarantee that compensatory services will be forthcoming, either. With such deep-rooted problems, it's not a surprise that the school system spends about 10 percent of its budget for tuition to private schools for students with disabilities.

However, school officials and, intriguingly, lawyers who have sued the district for its poor performance in special education, are teaming up now to try to address some of these long-standing problems. I wrote about some of the efforts that are under way.

(This is a good time to note that if you'd like to read the full article but are being stopped because you're not a subscriber, Education Week is offering a free two-week trial that gives you full access to the site.)

Both the Internet and 20-20 hindsight allow me to make this clarification to something the article may not have made crystal-clear: the "alternative dispute resolution" I referred to in the article has nothing to do with resolving disputes between parents and the school system. It's a term for a legal agreement reached between the school system and lawyers who represented parents in a class action against the school system. The ADR outlines several things the district must do to improve its special education programs.

No one I interviewed is suggesting that this reform process will be easy. But the D.C. public school system and its new leader, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, probably have as much freedom and energy to address this problem as they ever will have, at least while they still have popular Mayor Adrian Fenty to shield them. If I were a parent, I know I'd feel like I have heard this all before. That's the constituency that the school system must win over to consider this process a success.

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