New Report on Special Education Envisions “A Place for Every Student” in DC

The beginning of a new school year is a time to celebrate growth and promise. Families hope the best for their students – that they will be safe and nurtured at school, that they will flourish and meet new milestones. Unfortunately, the picture has not always been so promising in D.C. schools for students with disabilities. While the District has significantly improved in this area since our first report on special education over a decade ago, there is much work left to do.

In our latest report – A Place for Every Student: Managing Movement along the Special Education Continuum in DC – we seek to untangle the complicated history, legal obligations and relationships at play in District schools for students with special needs.


Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools must provide a “free, appropriate public education” to students with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment” according to their individual needs. But it never specifies what “appropriate” means. District parents report that they have been told that their child is receiving an “appropriate’” education even when the child has made no social-emotional and/or academic progress. Currently, more than half of students with documented special learning needs spend 80% or more of the school day in general education settings. But the overall performance of students with disabilities in the District lags 30% to 40% behind their peers.

The new report calls particular attention to these interconnected issues in the District:

  1. The current low legal standard of “appropriate” is based on process rather than outcomes.
  2. The District does not have standards or structures in place to properly support students with disabilities who may require a change in placement – such as to or from a non-public school – during their school careers.

Underlying these issues is a history of mistrust, a lack of transparency about how placement decisions and changes are made, limited data about special education outcomes in public and non-public settings, and persistent disparities between students with disabilities and their peers.

We offer recommendations for District agencies and stakeholders to meet their legal obligations and fulfill the potential for the District’s most vulnerable students. For example, we urge the D.C. Council to enact legislation defining an “appropriate” education in the District as one that requires significant learning and meaningful benefit, taking into consideration the individual child’s potential.

We also outline how different District stakeholders – the State Board of Education’s Office of the Student Advocate, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education, the Public Charter School Board and charter schools, DC Public Schools and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education – can build trust with families and construct institutional structures to support successful transitions.

The result of several years of inquiry, interviews with educators, families and other stakeholders, and research on best practices in other jurisdictions, the new report was produced with the pro bono support of attorneys at DLA Piper, Reed Smith and K&L Gates.

The full report is available here.

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