Special Education Financing Study for the District of Columbia

Study Background

This executive summary synthesizes the findings from a six-month study of special education finance in the District of Columbia (the District) conducted by the American Institutes for Research. The District has a long history of difficulties in regard to special education that have been well-documented by others and which are summarized in our findings below. Through this study, we have compiled and analyzed data, visited schools, and conducted interviews and focus groups to learn as much as possible about the current state of special education in the District. The purpose of these activities was not to further describe current problems, many of which are well-known, but to use this knowledge to inform fiscal recommendations intended to contribute to a brighter future for the special education children of the District and to avoid policies likely to maintain the status quo.

The current status of special education financing and provision in the District has led to some very serious concerns, and far-reaching and immediate change is needed. We conclude that a radical re-direction in current policies and practices in the District is imperative. While the financial commitment to special education in the District is substantial, a great deal of this money is being spent on relatively few students in NPS whose special education needs in terms of disability categories do not appear to set them apart, many of whom – it could be argued – are being served contrary to the least restrictive environment (LRE) requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In addition, special education transportation consumes a considerable portion of the overall budget.

Many of the recommendations contained in this report take a long-term perspective and will likely take supplemental funds and time to implement. There is extensive work to be done to reverse the practices and trends we present in this study and for genuine reform to take hold. This will likely require substantial change and additional short- and long-term investments.

The District appears poised to undertake a tremendous level of reform on all fronts, and a number of educational policy and structural changes have already occurred over the brief period of this study. The time seems right for bold new directions and perspectives. Over time, if a large percentage of the funds currently being spent on NPS and special education transportation were channeled toward direct instructional and instructional support services for children, and if Medicaid billing could be implemented in a manner that is comprehensive and highly efficient, current resources would likely be sufficient to provide high quality special education programming in the District.

Given the historical and current context, there is grave urgency for decisive early action and comprehensive reform. While clear delineations of state responsibilities for the OSSE continue to be refined, it is critical that the OSSE, DCPS, and charter schools begin working together immediately to establish District-wide goals for special education.