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Posted at 10:43 PM ET, 01/ 4/2011

Special ed: who gets non-public placements?

By Bill Turque

By official estimates, the District sends special education students to private schools at three times the national rate, spending more than a quarter-billion dollars annually on tuition, transportation and legal fees for about 2,300 children. Once the school system, or an independent hearing officer, decides that the city cannot provide the federally mandated "free and appropriate public education" to a student in the least restrictive environment, he or she is entitled to a private placement at public expense.

It also turns out that the area of the city with the highest proportion of privately placed special needs students is its most affluent: Ward 3. As of Sept. 30, according to DCPS, 40 percent of Ward 3 special ed students, (119 out of 299) attended private schools. The next highest percentage is in Ward 7, where 27 percent (558 out of 2,074) are served privately. Ward 8 has the lowest proportion at 22 percent (548 of 2,473).

The numbers in Ward 3 are small enough that a few less private placements would bring them closer into line with other areas. The data also doesn't include students who might be getting their needs met in public charter schools. And it doesn't account for families who have opted out of the public system completely and enrolled their children in private schools at their own expense.

But the meaning of the numbers is still pretty clear. Kim Jones, executive director of Advocates for Justice and Education, who works with parents and students to secure special ed services, said families in communities such as Ward 3 tend to have the financial resources, education and time to advocate aggressively for their children. Or they hire lawyers to do it. Communities with less wealth and social capital don't get the same outcomes from the system.

"You have families without a lot of education who have no real understanding about what it means to have a quality education, so the standard for quality in one community is very different from another," Jones said.

Richard Nyankori, the deputy chancellor for special education, who has been working to cut back the number of private placements and return some children to D.C. public schools, said the data reflect other disparities.

"Every parent wants the best for their children and for parents of students with disabilities that desire is magnified," he said in a recent e-mail. But, he added: "Some of our best special education services are located in Ward Three. Further, we have some of our strongest schools in the city located there as well. It is also an area of the city where we have the least concentration of students with highly complex needs--Wards 5, 7, and 8 have many more. Given the resources available in that ward, I think we have to take a look at the disproportionality and understand whether it's warranted or not."

Nyankori said there is also a gap in the quality of private placements for children in Wards 7 and 8. "Not all private schools for students in special education are equal in terms of quality and effectiveness," he said. "I wish it were the case that all schools had stellar programming like Lab, Kingsbury, and Phillips Programs for Children, but they don't. I share the frustration many parents have felt after struggling to get a private placement and then it turns out to be worse than the ones they left."

The long-term solution, of course, is a special education system within DCPS that doesn't send parents scrambling for private alternatives.

Here is a full proportional listing of private placements by ward as of Sept. 30:

Ward 1: 692 total special ed students, 157 private (23 pct)

Ward 2: 217 total, 57 private (26 pct)

Ward 3: 299 total, 119 private (40 pct)

Ward 4: 1,142 total, 280 private (25 pct)

Ward 5: 1,310 total, 326 private (25 pct)

Ward 6: 835 total, 204 private (24 pct)

Ward 7: 2,074 total, 558 private (27 pct)

Ward 8: 2,473 total, 548 private (22 pct)

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By Bill Turque  | January 4, 2011; 10:43 PM ET
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