Saturday, May 29, 2010

DC Admits Bungling Inclusion Plan; Vows to Press On

As I've pointed out before, truly exceptional services for children with disabilities -- especially preschoolers -- are few and far between.  When parents find services that are appropriate to their child's specific needs, they will do anything possible to access them.  So when quality services are taken away, with little thought about either the students or the parents, bad things happen.  People get mad.  Children don't get the services they need.  Even if there are short-term savings to denying children the services they need, the long-term costs are astounding.

As an example, yesterday the Washington Post reported that the District of Columbia's top special education official admitted that his department mishandled its plan to "reintegrate" students with special needs into the public school system.  (Read "DC Special-Ed Official Issues Apology: Initiative Mishandled, Parents Say; System Tried to Move Kids from Private Schools Back to Public Schools.")

The backlash from parents in DC should come as no surprise.  I recently reported on a similar plan in Maryland to move preschool children with special needs from an exceptional "non-public" school to the county's public elementary school in the name of inclusion -- seemingly with little regard for quality.  While county officials and parents have only positive things to say about the preschool that's been serving these children for decades, the county claims the students will be better served in large schools without specialized instructors or services.   Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast has made the laughable assertion that this move has nothing to do with saving money.

The problem in both the District and Montgomery County is twofold -- the plans themselves are flawed, and officials have not been honest and open with parents about their plans to make radical changes in the way they serve students.  Richard Nyankori, deputy chancellor for special education, has taken an interesting approach of bad-mouthing the private schools that many parents are so thankful for.  He said, "I can't overemphasize that some students enrolled in private schools are not getting what they deserve."  That may be true for a portion of students, but when parents are actively fighting to get their students into those schools and to keep them there, that argument loses a lot of steam.  And the District has offered no evidence of its newly discovered ability to meet needs it has historically been unable to meet.

When the city says the public school system "now has the capacity to serve more students with disabilities," that doesn't mean they have teachers with better qualifications, training, and experience.  It means they have budget problems and don't want to pay for private schools, even if those schools are more suited for many children with special needs.  I know many families who have spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to make the case for their children to receive an education in a private school setting, because the public schools have failed to meet their children's needs.  Are we to believe that these schools have drastically improved their ability to meet these needs?  Or are the District and other school systems asking parents to accept a lower level of quality and specialization for their children?

Despite bungling this situation enough to attract national attention, Nyankori has vowed to continue the "reintegration" plan.

I think there's a simple solution for the District.  Let the public schools show they can provide excellent instruction for kids with special needs, and let them compete with the private schools.  If parents value inclusion -- and many do, very much -- then the public schools should be able to attract their share of students.  In the meantime, they have a tough case to make.  The reason that more than 25 percent of special-needs students are in private placements is because the District has been unable to provide the level of education required by federal law.  The burden should be on DC schools to prove they can offer the specialized instruction that's needed.  Parents should not be asked -- or required -- to risk their children's educations and future success because the District doesn't want to pay for private school.

As the trend toward "inclusion," "reintegration," or whatever you want to call it continues -- often at the expense of students with the greatest needs -- what can we expect in New York City, the nation's largest school system, which is seeing record increases in the number of special needs students?
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