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Feds Cite D.C., Others for Problems in Special Education

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For five years running, the District of Columbia has failed to uphold parts of the federal law that governs the education of students with disabilities, according to the federal Department of Education's ratings of the district and other states and territories.

In particular, the district can't seem to get a handle on evaluating and re-evaluating students identified as having disabilities, a problem that is more than a decade old. (You can read more about some of those problems here, and about a more recent problem with special education services in the district.)

(The findings about each state are delayed by a year, so the most recent ratings of whether states are upholding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reflect the 2009-10 school year.)

In 2010, the school district only managed to evaluate 17 percent of the children who were waiting for special education examinations. A year later, they had only sat down and diagnosed 14 percent of students who needed evaluations. More students were reached as the months went by, but fewer than half got them.

The Education Department had already forced D.C. to set aside $500,000 in district and federal dollars for students with disabilities just to improve in this area, said Ruth Ryder, who oversees how states comply with IDEA. That was a first for the Education Department. But it didn't resolve the district's problems with identifying students with disabilities and evaluating their needs so that they can get the right services to meet those needs.

"When we got the data this year they continued to have a problem," Ms. Ryder said, so the district will be required to set aside funds again. This problem has been around for far longer than the five years the Education Department has been rating states on their IDEA performance.

According to the letter, "after more than 10 years of documented noncompliance by D.C. with the requirements to ensure timely initial evaluations and re-evaluations, and despite enforcement actions taken by the department, ... D.C. continues to demonstrate noncompliance with these critical requirements in IDEA."

Another problem in D.C.: Only two-thirds of students with disabilities younger than 3 who were eligible for services beyond their third birthdays had been provided with a plan for how to provide those services. The Education Department said D.C must keep working on these issues and set aside money again to work on them, among other things. If the district doesn't make serious progress, the federal government "may choose to take additional enforcement action."

D.C. has not yet responded to my request for comment about the Education Department's assessment that it is failing to uphold IDEA.

Overall, 28 states and the Republic of Palau were found to be meeting the requirements of IDEA. While D.C. has been struggling since the beginning, at first, it wasn't alone. The first year ratings were given, just nine states earned the "meets requirements" rating. Ms. Ryder praised the transformation since then.

These ratings were created when IDEA was reauthorized in 2004. Now, every district must answer a series of questions about the percentage of students in special education graduating with a standard diploma, the number are served in regular classrooms, and what happens to students with disabilities after they graduate. There's another set of questions that help figure ratings for the part of IDEA for infants and toddlers.

Based on how well states reach their own goals, they are rated either "meets requirements," "needs assistance," "needs intervention," or "needs substantial intervention."

To see how all states have done since the ratings began, try this easy-to-understand interactive graphic.

IDEA interactive graphic

Utah protested its rating this year of "needs intervention". They are chalking their rating up to a few typos. But Ms. Ryder said the state's argument reinforced what the letter to the Beehive State said: The state had failed to provide reliable data to the federal government.

Some states that earned a "meets requirements" designation this year are South Carolina and Kansas, both of which cut special education spending at the state level during the 2009-10 school year.

Keeping spending stable, or increasing it, from year to year is a huge part of whether states get their federal special education money, and requests to cut spending were a novelty until the recent economic downturn. So the cuts weren't considered a strike against a state. But Ms. Ryder said the department is considering whether to consider spending cuts in future ratings, as the number of states cutting special education budgets grows.

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