The Good News About Rights In DC Education

In the (long!) trail of ugly current events in DC public education, several recent expansions of rights for DC families deserve highlighting. Unlike so much of what education has become (at least here in DC), rights are not subject to statistical analysis nor can be represented by numbers or tests. Indeed, for American public education, rights are foundational.

Out of school suspensions

Despite opposition from both DCPS and the charter board, the Student Fair Access to School Amendment Act of 2018 was unanimously approved by the council. The law ensures that students are not out of school for long periods, by limiting out-of-school suspensions for students from kindergarten through 8th grade. To be sure, amendments watered down the original proposal—but it still represents a welcome change in course, given that suspensions are used disproportionately in DC’s publicly funded schools (not to mention the fact that the executive director of the charter board sees no reason to enforce the law regarding suspensions).

Indeed, one could say this law is a step toward changing the pedagogy of poverty for our city’s kids—where the experience of school for many poor children and their teachers is regimentation and severe curtailment of creativity and freedom.

(Oh, it’s not ME saying that! Hear what a DC charter school teacher testified last month about it before the city council’s education committee.)

The law also includes a bump up in at risk funding—too little, perhaps, to make a large difference, but sorely needed nonetheless to ensure the kids who need the most resources get some portion of it.

Special education funding

It has taken the better part of 5 years to get the Enhanced Special Education Services Act fully funded–despite advocates testifying for decades running about the poor treatment of DC children needing special education services.

Now that the law has been fully funded, we in DC should be proud: The FY19 funding ensures that a wider range of services for special education and early intervention are now available to DC families.

And yet, disincentives to provide those services still remain.

Our city’s ombudsman for public education, Joyanna Smith, shared with me that “schools are disincentivized to provide services after their staffing projections are complete. For example, if a student is evaluated and then determined eligible for specialized instruction and related services in the middle of the school year, services must be provided. The same principle applies to students who require a significant number of hours of services per an IEP [individualized education program], if a student enrolls in the middle of the school year. Even though supplemental funding may eventually track with the student, the school may be disincentivized to provide services for that student because they would have to fund staff and services right away. This may inform how and why a school may be disincentivized to evaluate or determine a child eligible for services especially if those services require more specialized staff. DCPS may be able to mitigate somewhat more than the charter sector because they may be able to provide services in other locations. However, smaller charter LEAs may be more disincentivized to evaluate or determine a child eligible for services because they do not have the scale that DCPS has in many cases.

“Additionally, schools may be incentivized to offer “fully inclusive” services even though a student may require services in a more restrictive educational setting. The more restrictive educational settings are more expensive in most cases because they usually require more intensive supports and interventions.”

(Hmm: sounds like a good reason to have a common enrollment system instead of a lottery system. You know–making sure students are enrolled and their progress tracked wherever they go, instead of prioritizing choice and school ratings. Just a thought.)

Due process for residency adjudication

Two recent lawsuits filed by a Duke Ellington high school parent, on behalf of other Ellington parents, do not so much expand rights as underscore the way in which those rights were violated by city officials–and provide a pathway to ensuring due process for other parents.

The first lawsuit alleged that the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) did not adequately notify Ellington parents of OSSE’s belief that they were not legitimate DC residents.

The ensuing decision was decisively made in favor of the parents. (Indeed, the judge appeared mystified that there could be any doubt that OSSE had violated the law and parents’ rights.)

Just this week, the Ellington parents filed another lawsuit, after OSSE appeared to again not comply with the law regarding its process of residency verification. This complaint also alleged that OSSE singled out the school for special treatment that it did not give to other publicly funded schools that OSSE also determined had residency issues.

Again, the judge ruled against OSSE.

(Hmm: Sense a pattern here?)

To be sure, if things keep going in this direction of we the little people, our city leaders may actually (gasp!) ensure that by right schools in every neighborhood are the foundation of all DC education policies–not just another choice.

(Yeah, it’s that radical thing called democracy, where citizens’ rights take priority over the choice of politically motivated groups locally or internationally to influence elections and policymakers for their own benefit.)

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