ERN Testimony: Special Education Policies for Students with Disabilities


February 2, 2022

Committee of the Whole Public Roundtable:

Special Education Policies for Students with Disabilities

Jess Giles

State Director

Education Reform Now DC

Good morning, Chairman Mendelson and members and staff of the Committee of the Whole. My name is Jess Giles. I am a ward seven resident and State Director of Education Reform Now DC (“ERN DC”). ERN DC is a non-profit organization fighting for a just and equitable public education system for all students.

DC public education has made progress in the last 15 years, yet the academic performance of students with disabilities is suboptimal. We know that when students with disabilities are provided the appropriate accommodations and interventions in instruction, they can perform at grade level. So why is this not happening?

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)’s 2019 landscape on special education revealed many disturbing trends in the District, including that zero percent of students aged 14 to 21 exited special education to general education in 2018, ranking DC last in the nation. Additionally, the report found that Black and low-income students are much more likely to be overidentified and stay in special education services.

Families need help. Despite the efforts of OSSE and the Ombudsman for Public Education, many families remain unaware or unsure of how to navigate our complex public education system and access resources for their students. What is OSSE doing to put parents, families, and guardians in the best possible position to be informed, make early, proactive decisions about their student’s education and support, and get immediate, free assistance? Are these solutions helping? When will we know?

Early Intervention (EI) has proven invaluable for helping children exit from special education sooner. OSSE must modernize how it works with EI families, specifically how parents/guardians receive information and share evidence (e.g., videos, pictures) of their children’s progress with their related service providers (RSPs); so that parents/families can receive updates and feedback on their child’s progress in real-time with the outcome of ensuring their student exits from services. Additionally, funding should be used for liaisons from OSSE to directly assist families, particularly those transitioning from Part C to Part B.

Educators and schools need help. IDEA requires that a free appropriate public education—which includes special education and related services—be made available to each eligible child with a disability. And yet, there is a significant lack of capacity and training among school staff in special education. In OSSE’s 2019 District of Columbia Teacher Workforce Report, special education was flagged as one of the subjects areas with the highest need for teachers. Pre-pandemic, in 2018-19 school year, 22 percent of all special education positions had to be filled due to teachers leaving their school or new positions being created. I fear this issue has worsened during the pandemic. For example, we have heard of examples where Principals and Assistant Principals are serving as special education coordinators at schools, which is frankly absurd given their workload and responsibilities. Each school should have dedicated staff whose sole focus is assisting students with disabilities and their families. These individuals should also have full awareness of the laws and resources in place, as well as proper training and certification in special education. The District must provide greater incentives for adults to specialize in special education, ongoing opportunities for professional development, and more support for educators while in school.

Lastly, the District’s low literacy rates demand urgent action from all leaders. In 2019, only 30 percent of students were proficient in reading. I applaud the DC Council for passing into law and funding the Dyslexia and Other Reading Disabilities Screening and Prevention Pilot Program Act of 2019. Ensuring this law is implemented quickly is a vital step in ensuring all students read at grade level by third grade regardless of where they live and go to school in the District; they are confident in their independent reading abilities and enjoy reading.

In closing, I have some additional items in my written testimony I urge the Committee of the Whole to follow up on.

For oversight:

  • Require a status update on students inside the D.C. Jail and whether they are receiving education and services.
  • The DC Council passed into law the Enhanced Special Education Services Act and finally funded that law. This law requires schools to prepare students for adulthood at a younger age (14 years instead of 16 years); expands Part C eligibility from the previous standard; and shortens the time frame for evaluation. These reforms were well-researched and created with families and advocates across the city. What is the latest on the implementation of that law?
  • District funding for students should be equitably distributed and consistently monitored. D.C. received $386,317,154 of American Rescue Plan funding and $5 million of dedicated K-12 support for special education. How are those funds being used to support students with disabilities?

Thank you for allowing me to testify today. I welcome any questions you might have.