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FY14 Budget Testimony: District of Columbia Public Schools

April 17, 2013

Children’s Law Center executive director Judith Sandalow testified before the DC Council’s Committee on Education at the budget hearing for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Her testimony focused on the impact of the proposed budget on special education students. Read a summary below, or her  full written testimony (PDF) as submitted to the committee.

Some children, including many of Children’s Law Center’s clients, require specialized instruction, counseling, and other services to keep up with their peers and stay engaged in school. If these children don’t get the extra help they need, they are at risk of truancy, grade retention, and dropping out of school. As DCPS works to improve academic outcomes across the board, additional investments in special education and socio-emotional supports are necessary to ensure that all students graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to success as adults.

While the academic achievement rates for all students are low, the rates for students in special education are abysmal. Parents come to Children’s Law Center seeking assistance for children who are years behind academically, who struggle to sit in their seats, get along with peers, and find motivation to keep trying when their only experience of school is of failing. This is a crisis situation, and DCPS’s proposed budget does not come close to providing the level of funding needed to address it. At the same time, DC is working to bring back to local schools hundreds of students who are now being educated at nonpublic schools. This reduces the DCPS budget for special education nonpublic tuition, but given that DCPS is already struggling to provide adequate services to its students with disabilities, returning hundreds more students can only be successful if there is a major financial investment in local special education services.

Despite essentially flat funding, DCPS is planning to expand special education capacity in three areas. Two of these expansions – evidence-based reading instruction and hiring more social workers – are welcome and necessary. The third, the development of 35 more self-contained classrooms in middle and high schools, is troubling because it is based on the model of current RISE classrooms, which uses mostly online curriculum. Classroom teachers often cannot help students understand the material presented by the online program, and they are surrounded by students who often vary widely in age and ability. 

These expansions also come at the expense of other aspects of special education, including related therapy services and special education for young children – neither of which can afford to lose funding. This exposes another large challenge for DCPS, which is the lack of strategic planning for DCPS’s special education system. A meaningful plan must start by surveying the needs of current and prospective students and the existing programs, then prioritize areas to invest in.