DC Public Schools has been struggling for years to reduce the amount it spends annually on private school placements for special education students who cannot get their academic needs met in the public system. The focus is now on the main underlying factor: Too many District children are being misdiagnosed with learning disabilities.
For many parents, outside placements are the only way their learning-disabled children can get the specialized academic services they need and are entitled to under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
But D.C. has the highest volume of special education litigation in the country and spends more per student on private school tuition, transportation and attorneys' fees than both New York and San Francisco. It's well known that some parents with the political savvy and financial wherewithal to hire private lawyers and advocates have successfully gamed the system to get taxpayers to pay for their children's private school educations.
This is confirmed by the fact that the highest percentage of outside placements are in the wealthiest section of the city, and that some attorneys rely exclusively on IDEA litigation for their income. It doesn't help matters that DCPS' long history of failure to educate children without learning disabilities makes it such an easy target.
On the other end of the spectrum, as a U.S. Department of Education report noted, DCPS' special-ed program has also been used as a dumping ground for poor children with behavioral -- but not cognitive -- problems.
Whatever the motivation, mislabeling children who belong in a regular classroom setting is an abuse of the system. But correcting it without jeopardizing children who have no other real option is a tall order, and in the past DCPS has not been up to the challenge.
In 2007, the cost of private placements had zoomed to nearly $10 million per month. But an investigation by The Washington Examiner found little oversight, with a quarter of District students lacking up-to-date Individualized Education Programs.
Last year, the city spent $109 million for 1,700 students in private placement. That number is down to 1,189 this year, nearly fulfilling Mayor Vincent Gray's 2011 promise to reduce outplacements by half. But the onus is now on DCPS to come up with a better way to diagnose students in need of special education -- and start providing the quality education they need to thrive.