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Hooray for Sister ShemaYah (“The Very Special Education of Sister ShemaYah,” 12/3) and her perseverance!
Special education management at District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) has an attitude problem: The system is hostile to parents and resists their input and involvement. In individual cases, the system’s initial response is that nothing much is wrong. It blames anyone else available for its own shortcomings and for the child’s educational difficulties, and its personal attacks on parents can be particularly painful. The process of getting an appropriate education for a special-needs child is time-consuming, exhausting, and emotionally bruising. It is hardly surprising that most parents bail out when their own child’s needs have been met.
Unfortunately, most of the DCPS leadership—Anne Gay being an exception—seem to have bought into the attitude problem. Arlene Ackerman has led in the wrong direction. The process of evaluating and placing a child routinely breaks down for weeks at a time, and DCPS has never been able to document or quantify legitimate reasons for its failure to promptly evaluate and place special-needs children. Ackerman responded to these failures by supporting an extension of the legal deadline for completing this process from 50 to 120 days because 50 days was “unfair.”
In 1998, DCPS paid more than $10 million in legal fees to parents who successfully challenged the system. Most of this cost was incurred because it usually takes an advocate to get any action at all out of the Division of Special Education and because DCPS attorneys routinely, vigorously, and uncompromisingly defend inappropriate and indefensible DCPS actions and placements. And eventually, DCPS almost always loses. Rather than holding her staff accountable for their actions and requiring them to reduce these costs by exercising better judgment in such cases, however, Ackerman has gotten Congress to cap fee reimbursement at less than half the rate of the most junior, inexperienced attorney in a law firm doing special education work. It should not take an economist to realize that such a Draconian price cut will largely eliminate legal representation for parents—although DCPS denies this impact.
As parents, we should not have to rely on expensive lawyers or on citizens like Sister ShemaYah, who has made fighting and fixing the system her life’s work. Yet until DCPS has a change of attitude and starts working with parents, rather than against them, we have little choice.
Good luck in your efforts, Mrs. Gay!