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“Bureaucratic Dyslexia” (11/1) was right on target about Child Find, the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS)’s miserably inadequate program for identifying children who may have disabilities so they can be evaluated for special-education programs. “I can’t find the Child Find office” is a running joke among teachers.

However, the article was misleading when it implied that identification and evaluation of children with disabilities is the underlying or sole problem with D.C.’s special-education program. Certainly identification and evaluation is an area where failure can be easily and objectively measured. But even if, by some miracle, the District finally complied with the federally mandated Child Find program, the city still would have a special-education system that is rotten to the core.

Ms. Bollech asserts that children who finally make it into one of DCPS’s special-education programs are in “good hands.” Children, like her daughter, who attend private schools at DCPS expense may be in good hands, but children who attend public programs are most decidedly not.

One student I know went without counseling services for two years although the school knew he was seriously emotionally disturbed. A current teacher estimates that 90 percent of students fail to receive the counseling services that DCPS staff determined they need.

Bollech unwittingly provides a perfect example of how the school system fails our children even after they have been properly identified and evaluated for disabilities: Her daughter attends private school. If the District had a decent special-education program, then why would the taxpayers need to pay for Bollech’s daughter to attend private school?

Contrary to popular opinion, federal law does not require school systems to send children with disabilities to expensive private schools. The law requires only that students with disabilities receive a “free and appropriate public education.” If the District had existing programs that adequately addressed the needs of children with disabilities, then those children would be placed in public schools. Parents who chose to send their children to private schools anyway would have to pay out of their own pockets.

Currently, D.C. sends almost half of the city’s special-education students to private schools, many of them out of state, at a cost of over $20 million annually. That figure does not include the millions incurred in legal fees and transportation costs. Wasteful spending on private placements increases every year due to the lack of appropriate public-school programs in the District. With this kind of money, the District could create a model public program, the envy of the surrounding school districts.

Parents who know the special-education system and have resources fight for and receive private placements at DCPS’s expense, not because they’re trying to cheat an already beleaguered system, but because their children need services the District does not provide. Children whose parents do not know the system or do not have the resources to fight go without even the most basic of services. Reform efforts must include the development of quality public programs to break this costly cycle of failure.

National Association of Public Interest Law