An Editorial from Mayor Vincent C. Gray: Turning the Corner in Special Education

As D.C. Public Schools resumed classes, one thing students found is the best special education system that the District has seen in many, many years. Since the moment I took office in January of 2011, my administration has worked tirelessly to improve education outcomes for children with disabilities.

These efforts have included getting more of our students with disabilities out of far-flung locations and into public schools where they can be educated well with their peers and nearer to their homes. The improvements we have made to public education also include ensuring that children who need special education services are moved more quickly into those programs.

Moreover, we’ve seen improvements in the achievement level of students with disabilities in the District. Clear evidence that D.C. is moving in the right direction includes:

  • Standardized reading scores for the District’s fourth-grade students with disabilities improved by 6 percentage points between 2011 and 2013 — even as average scores declined by 2 points at the national level. Our students’ math scores, meanwhile, improved by 11 points over the same period, while remaining flat nationally (National Assessment of Educational Progress,
  • For the District’s eighth-graders with disabilities, standardized reading scores improved by 8 percentage points between 2011 and 2013, while advancing by just 1 point nationally. Math scores for these students improved by 9 points over the same period, even though the national average fell by one point (National Assessment of Educational Progress,
  • In late 2011, on the basis of improved performance, a federal court released the District from oversight in the Blackman portion of the Blackman-Jones class action lawsuit. This suit — first brought in 1997 — required that the District respond to parental complaints about the failure to provide special education services in a timely manner, according to federal standards. And the District’s current performance related to the Jones portion of the lawsuit, involving timely implementation of Hearing Officer Determinations, demonstrates that we are close to meeting the requirements for exit from that case.
  • In 2012, a federal court released the District from oversight in a 1995 class-action suit, Petties v. D.C., which related to making prompt payments to private schools and getting students with disabilities bused to school on time.
  • The District’s on-time rates for special-education evaluations improved from 67 percent in 2008-2009 to over 90 percent currently. Moreover, the rate for timely transition of our students ages birth to age 3 from early-intervention services into special education also improved,from 8 percent in 2008-2009 to 98 percent currently.
  • The proportion of the District’s special-education students being educated in non-public settings has been reduced by more than 50 percent — from 2,204 when I first took office to 1,062 currently. The reduction is evidence of our dramatically increased capacity to serve children in our public schools with quality special education.
  • At the same time, we have seen a 30 percent reduction in formal complaints by families with children in special education.

These results demonstrate we are doing a far better job than we were just a few years ago of ensuring that students with disabilities receive a quality education close to home. This means that, across the District, our children are better prepared for life beyond the classroom — and our city will be stronger for it.

The D.C. Council is currently considering legislation that some have suggested will improve special education in the District. Many of the proposed changes, though, are already included in existing plans made by our Office of the State Superintendent of Education and will happen regardless of what the council does.

The dramatic improvements in the District’s special education system over the past several years are significant and undeniable. Clearly, we still have more work to do — but that should not prevent us from recognizing the tremendous gains our students and educators have made. After many tumultuous years marked by federal oversight and frustration by parents and students, we have turned the corner — and we are on the path to ensuring the highest-quality education possible for all of our students, including those with special needs.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray

*This editorial appeared in The Current newspaper on Wednesday, September 3, 2014: