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Rewriting the rules
New effort tries to rein-in special ed costs
(Published May 15, 2006)

By G. STEPHEN THURSTON
Special to The Common Denominator

City officials are trying to rewrite a decade-old story -- only this time with a different ending, one that doesn't push the public schools way over budget.

It started in 1995 in the federal courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman, who ruled that D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) officials were not responding quickly enough to the transportation needs of special education students. That decision led to creation of the Transportation Administration, which is funded but not controlled by the public school system.

In the intervening years, special needs students have gotten bused as far as 60 miles away. From 2001 to 2005, DCPS has seen a 500 percent increase in the tuition it must pay to non-public special education schools. Now, about one-quarter of the DCPS budget goes to pay for all special education resources, about twice as much as the average big city school system spends. Yet the proportion of special needs students, at 16 percent in the District, is only about 3 percent greater than the average in big city schools.

D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz even suggested at a recent public hearing that families are moving back to the District from the suburbs to take advantage of the liberal use of taxpayer funded busing and private education.

"We have to fund that placement -- it's court-ordered," said Erika Pierson, the school system's deputy general counsel, during a May 4 hearing before the D.C. City Council's Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation.

Pierson said that DCPS pays tuition and fees at a rate set by law in Maryland and Virginia, but that schools in the District are not required by law to have set tuition rates and, therefore, they have "no incentive" to negotiate a set fee.

This means that the schools can, and often do, increase their tuition mid-year, something that is tough to budget, she said.

To change the plot of this story and rein-in some of these ever-increasing costs, the school board recently asked the city council to consider legislation designed to force non-public schools serving special needs students to submit to a "Certificate of Approval" process. Included in the process would be a requirement that the schools agree to be regulated by a set rate for tuition and fees to continue enrolling D.C. Public Schools' special needs students.

Jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia already have similar processes.

The bill, introduced by council Chairman Linda Cropp on behalf of the school board, went before the council's education committee at the May 4 hearing, less than a week after the committee had prepared its budget report.

"This is a matter of providing appropriate services for children who need those services, and not being taken to the cleaners in doing so," education committee Chairman Kathy Patterson, D-Ward 3, told The Common Denominator.

Patterson said that "it has taken far too long" for the District to consider such legislation, which she called "something I have pressed the school system to put forward since taking over the education committee a year ago."

City Administrator Robert Bobb, who testified in support of the proposal on behalf of the Williams administration at Patterson's hearing, said he believes a certification process will "put systems in place to ensure that non-public programs provide our special needs students with appropriate services and educational opportunities."

But he also noted that setting tuition rates might not make the costs drop. It would, however, ensure more accurate budgeting since set rates would not rise throughout the school year, he said.

In addition to setting tuition rates, the "Placement of Student's with Disabilities in Non-public Schools Amendment Act of 2006" aims to make sure that the schools are teaching what D.C. officials think they should.

"Do I think schools will complain? There is that possibility," acknowledged Patterson. "The lawyers gave us some good advice in terms of making certain the legislation is consistent with federal law, and once we are consistent with federal law there is not much that even the courts can do."

Patterson, during her opening statement at the May 4 hearing, described the tax money being spent for special education as "an extraordinary amount" yet added that "we are not in all cases serving kids well, close to home."

Indeed, 54 schools about 20 percent of the 250 schools where students are bused are located outside of the District. Of those, most are in the inner-suburbs of Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington and Fairfax counties.

However, some D.C. Public Schools students are being bused as far afield in Maryland as Baltimore, Annapolis and Timonium -- nearly 60 miles away. Or they travel more than 50 miles one-way every school day to Fredericksburg, Va., according to the list of schools provided to The Common Denominator by the Office of the Transportation Administrator.

Currently, nearly 8 percent of the 11,357 DCPS special education students are bused outside the District. This uses about 26 percent of the school system's Division of Transportation budget, according to Leslie Dews, an aide to Transportation Administrator David Gilmore.

A Board of Education Ad Hoc Committee on Special Education reported in a "white paper" last January that "the costs for private school tuition and transportation and due process litigation have spiraled out of control in recent years, making the District of Columbia's expenditures uniquely enormous."

In the years covered by the "white paper" report, ending in fiscal 2005, the costs for special education have increased by $53.5 million or 21 percent. Transportation spending has seen a 46 percent increase according to the white paper report, moving from about $51 million to nearly $76 million between 2001 and 2005. Transportation spending was lowest in 2003 at about $48 million, according to the report.

Between  fiscal  2001  and  2005, non-public  tuition  spending  increased  by  $102  million,  a  500  percent  increase, according to the white paper.

Patterson, while supportive of placing restrictions on special education funding, said she is "still not convinced that the council must act" to legislate change.

She said the school board "may well be able to do this through regulations the board can adopt, but, that said, I am happy to move statutory changes in order to bring more rationality to our special ed spending."

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator