More Answers Needed on the Proposed Special Education Budget

Mayor Gray’s proposed budget raises some troubling questions about special education: In the District’s push to move special needs students from expensive private schools back into our public system, are these students being shortchanged on the teachers and resources they need to achieve success? 

According to budget documents, special education within DC public schools will see a reduction of more than 200 full-time equivalent positions in school year 2012-13, as well as a $209,000 cut in local funds. This is surprising, because Mayor Gray has stated that the District will achieve $40 million in savings as a result of these students returning to the public school system, and his budget presentation notes that tuition savings would be “directly reinvested into inclusive public education.” 

So are special education students losing out while the overall public system gains? It’s unclear, and more answers are needed. Organizations that advocate for special needs students in the District raised concerns about where the savings have gone in a DC Council education budget hearing last week, including Children’s Law Center

There is little disagreement that the District needs to build special education capacity within our public system. For years, the District has sent special needs students to private schools because DC Public Schools and DC Public Charter Schools didn’t have the facilities and resources to meet the needs of these students. The practice of providing “non-public tuition” is expensive not only in terms of education but also in terms of transportation, because students have to be driven to schools far from their homes. In fact, Mayor Gray has a goal of reducing these types of placements by half in his term. But, in order for this to work, DCPS must also boost the capacity of local schools to handle the increased enrollment of students with special needs. 

DC Public Schools projects special ed enrollment will increase next school year by 13 percent due to these transferred students, the majority of whom will be children with the highest needs. Yet according to next year’s budget, funding for some special education programs would decline. Once again, this highlights the need for more transparency and clarity in our public school system’s budget. Was the $40 million in savings from non-public placements reinvested into special education? If so, how will it be distributed to schools? Or will schools ultimately see less special education local funding next year, as budget documents suggest? 

DCFPI will ask these questions of the Mayor and the school system, and we hope to have answers in the next few weeks.