As The Examiner reported last week, parents of 1,100 special needs D.C. students enrolled in private schools are being pressed to return their children to their neighborhood public schools. Some are being informed that the District will no longer pay their tuition and transportation costs. Others are being pushed into less expensive programs that may not meet their children's needs. This has created great anxiety for families whose children will be transferred back to the same schools previously judged incapable of meeting their needs.
Under federal law, school systems must provide private-school placement for special needs students if the local public schools cannot meet their special needs. This is quite easy to prove in the case of DC Public Schools, which is badly failing its nondisabled students.
It is not cheap to educate special needs students properly. In the District's case, it's nearly $65,000 per student each year. The city spends $110 million in all to send 1,700 disabled students to private schools, because fully 18 percent of the city's nearly 12,000 special needs students were enrolled in private facilities during the 2010-2011 school year -- a rate six times the national average.
The great expense involved in providing private tuition for special needs students drew the eye of Mayor Vincent Gray when he was a candidate, and he pledged to address it as part of his plan to get the District's fiscal house in order.
Unfortunately, Gray's promise to cut the number of special needs students in private schools in half by 2014 does not exactly square with school officials' claims that each student's situation will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Nor does it square with what a spokesman for Gray said -- that "the administration will not ask a single child or a family to return to DCPS until we can provide them with a quality educational option equal to or better than their current nonpublic placements out of district."
It seems parents are rightly worried that their special needs children will be dumped into a failing school system just to save money. The District could begin to allay those fears, and to solve its fiscal problem, by setting goals on the other side of the equation. Instead of setting arbitrary numerical benchmarks for forcing students into DCPS, Mayor Gray should be listing specific goals for improving the school system to the point at which it can accommodate special needs students.