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Marc Ferrera Asks For More Accountability in Funding Private School Placement For SPED
Let DCPS spend less money fighting private placements, and fund them at schools that have a track record of better performance.
When public schools aren't enough; Private special education's important role.(OPED)
The Washington Times, 12/12/05

D.C. Public Schools often comes under fire for placing many students in separate special-education institutions rather than providing them services directly. I teach at the Lab School of Washington, which specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities, and I'm a D.C. taxpayer. I therefore benefit by DCPS' sending students to such institutions, but I also pay for it. These conflicting interests have led me to examine the role of such institutions.

In fiscal year 2006, DCPS budgeted $105,433,000 for payments to private special-education providers for 2,589 special-education students who attend private schools with public funding, an average of $40,723 per privately placed student.

In trying to minimize privately placed students, DCPS is not motivated only by finances. Legislation demands the "least restrictive environment," and states, "separate schooling ... occurs only when ... education in regular classes ... cannot be achieved satisfactorily." This clause has justified inclusion of severely disabled students in regular classrooms, so placing mildly disabled students in separate schools might seem antithetical. However, too narrow a definition of "restrictive" ignores the liberation that students experience when they are no longer in the instructional minority.

DCPS provides special classes for learning-disabled students at all levels, plus Prospect Learning Center, a "Separate Day School for Specific Learning Disabilities." However, no special public school for these students exists in elementary or high school.

Tuition at the Lab School ranges from $25,000 to $27,000 per year. Virtually all students receive special services: language, occupational or psychological therapy, costing $90 to $110 per weekly session. Three hours of these services add roughly $290 per week for 36 weeks or $10,440. A realistic annual bill at the Lab School is $36,500. Is this a valid investment? DCPS class sizes average about 25 in primary grades, 32 in grades 4 and 5, and vary in higher grades. In Lab's high school, the norm is under 8; a full-time teacher probably teaches fewer than 40 students.

Classes in the junior high are similar in size; those in the lower school are larger, but have an intern as well. Research supports the presumption that smaller classes are better; the tipping point for benefits is around 20 students. This suggests that the Lab School and schools like it provide a better education than a regular public school.

Smaller classes are important for students with language and attention deficits. Teachers can monitor students' work in ways we cannot do in large classes.

Getting to know each student helps us see their development holistically, their strivings as well as their irritations. Smaller classes might be an acceptable salary tradeoff to many prospective teachers, helping to alleviate the teacher shortage.

Standardized test scores are one common if controversial way of measuring how well a school functions. The average SAT scores of DCPS students have hovered around 800 since 1999. Those of Lab School students are not available for publication, but average higher than that.

College admissions are another metric. All 29 students in the Lab School's class of 2005 were admitted to two- or four-year institutions. The adjustment to college is often difficult for LSW students. Many leave after a semester, but most return after some work experience.

Reports abound that affluent families with "high-powered" lawyers are able to sway the Individual Education Program team to fund tuition at the Lab School or that funding is ordered because of the "technicality" of DCPS' failure to meet mandated timelines for evaluations and meetings.

In my opinion, neither point is valid. Parents (and older students) are only part of a multi-faceted IEP team. If the team determines that a student's goals can be met in the public schools, then the burden of proof lies with the parents to show otherwise. If DCPS is not efficient enough to perform the mandated procedures to benefit a student lagging behind his peers, then that student, too, deserves private placement until DCPS can show that it can provide the student the least restrictive environment.

Every school or system has its warts. But given the Lab School's smaller classes, higher SAT scores and high college admission rate, it is reasonable to conclude that students receive a significantly better education at the Lab School than they could get in D.C. Public Schools.

This writer wants all District students, especially those with special needs, to get an adequate public education, but a division of labor seems appropriate: Let DCPS spend less money fighting private placements, and fund them at schools that have a track record of better performance. As DCPS improves its schools, it can revisit the issue. By reducing class size, recruiting better-qualified teachers and raising expectations for all, it can focus on becoming, instead of a system that parents fight to have their children exempted from, one in which all are included.

Marc Ferrara, who teaches at the Lab School of Washington, lives in Ward 7.

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© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation