What Drives DC Parents of Students with Disabilities: Fear and Time

“We are losing time on many of our children in the District of Columbia and we need to appropriately and consistently accommodate our children with disabilities and insure a positive learning environment.”

With over 65 local education agencies (DCPS and public charters) and over 12,000 students with IEPs, the job of providing an effective special education continuum in our city is a daunting one. In 2014, the DC City Council unanimously passed significant legislation focused on Special Education reform, and yet key elements of that legislation remain unfunded. These funding delays are adding to the fear of parents—a fear of their children falling further and further behind—and the crisis of time for our students with disabilities.

The elements left unfunded are:

  • Transition Planning to start at age 14 instead of 16
  • Evaluation of Children referred for special education must be within 60 days from parent consent or 90 days from referral—right now, our kids wait 120 days and more
  • Early intervention services for kids from 0-3 years old qualifying at 25% delay
  • Use of capacity building funding for students at risk and to expand special education services

All of these elements are pivotal to improving our education of students with disabilities in a timely and effective way, and in ensuring that our students with disabilities create productive and independent futures.

As a parent of two of those 12,000 students, I know the agony of “fear and time.” My children are teenagers and are currently working with their teachers, related service providers and our family and friends to develop proactive secondary transition plans (as required under IDEA). This means that they are participating in their own IEP meetings, practicing self-advocacy, able to describe their disability, and share their needs and goals. These include their plans to support their future education, employment, and independent living needs.

National research has shown that individuals with disabilities who have opportunities for self-determination and transition planning have better life outcomes. They are more integrated into their communities, healthier, have more successful careers, are better able to advocate for themselves, and are more productive citizens. Yet, because of the delay in this legislation, thousands of DC students with IEPs who turned 14 last year and this year and next year will not be going through transition planning, will not be working with their school team, families and community to make goals and plans to support their future education, employment, and independent living needs.

Statistics show that this delay will greatly decrease their ability to succeed in future education and employment – this delay negatively affects our youth, our families and our city. Because of these delays, it is not surprising that the graduation rate in DC is only 46 percent for students with disabilities, (and this does NOT include students “graduating” school without a diploma and just a certificate of completion of their IEP).

It is simply not acceptable.

DCFPI’s recent post on early identification shows us the financial downfall that occurs when our city continues to delay funding for shorter evaluation times and service levels and fails to take a focused and proactive effort for early identification of students with disabilities as the 2014 Special Education reforms intended:

“Children who do not receive the specialized support they need as infants and toddlers have a much harder time making up lost ground later. DC’s disappointing academic gap for children in special education – only about six percent are college and career ready – shows how hard it is to catch older children up in school.”

To further show the horrible lag for students with disabilities in our city, Judith Sandalow’s recent Huffington Post piece shared these sad statistics:

“The most recent testing data shows that 60 percent of special education students score at lowest level of standardized testing, as opposed to 20-30 percent of students in general education. Our schools are failing these children.”

DCASE is committed to working with our partners to support and strengthen the education that DC children with disabilities receive. Our alliance of nonpublic and charter schools is dedicated to improving educational opportunities for all DC students with disabilities, and we work toward fulfilling the promise of a quality education for all children through advocacy, special education resources, and strong partnerships. We worked in partnership with dozens of local organizations, parents, and advocates to get the 2014 special education legislation passed. DCASE and our partners collectively believe that we MUST make the educational system better for our students and families. We must be protecting, serving and preparing our students with disabilities to be productive citizens of our city.

That’s why we’re asking Jennie Niles, our Deputy Mayor for Education, and Superintendent Hanseul Kang and OSSE to fully fund the 2014 Special Education Reforms when they submit the budget requests to Mayor Bowser.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: We’re asking you to add your voice to ours and advocating to fund these reforms. By sharing our stories, the statistics and the overwhelming positive outcomes for our students if the reforms are funded, we can build a movement and help our students receive the special education services they so deserve.

Molly L. Whalen, Executive Director, DCASE