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Special Education Challenges in D.C., and Everywhere

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This week, lawyers will argue that the District of Columbia school system didn't do enough to find and teach 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds with disabilities—in front of the same judge who has already ruled that the school district didn't do right by these kids in 2005, 2006, and 2007.

In the class-action case D.L. v. District of Columbia, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled in August that the District violated part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires states to identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities from birth through age 21 who are in need of early intervention or special education services. From 2007 and before, D.C. didn't do enough to find students in need of these services, and some parents paid for them on their own, or their children lost valuable time with special education experts before entering kindergarten, the judge ruled.

And that was despite a federal Department of Education warning almost a decade earlier that the district wasn't meeting its obligations to children with special needs.

The judge agreed with expert witnesses who said that while D.C. should have been serving at least 6 percent of its 3- to 5-year-old population, it served less than 3 percent of the children in that age group—the lowest in the country. Meanwhile, 43 states and Puerto Rico served more than 5 percent of the kids in this age group and 26 states served more than 6 percent of them.

Starting Wednesday, the judge will hear arguments about why the same negligence may have continued in 2008, 2009, and 2010. In addition to being compensated for services they may have paid for, parents in the class-action case want someone to be appointed to monitor how the district manages its Child Find programs in the future.

Issues with identifying and students with disabilities aren't the only problems with D.C.'s special education programs. For years, there has been legal wrangling over the placement of special education students. And the district will soon host hearings about whether to cap how much is spent on special needs students who attend private schools, which could be the beginning of a whole new era of disagreement.

Special education, as some of you know far better than I do, has long been a source of contention at the federal, state, district, school, classroom, and individual student basis, somewhere, every day. In Louisiana, a class-action suit alleges that some New Orleans students with disabilities are being denied enrollment in special education programs or being forced to attend schools unwilling or unable to meet their educational needs.

And in Arizona, complaints have been filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights over issues with serving special needs students in Scottsdale.

Will the struggles over serving students with disabilities ever end?

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