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Mayor Gray Announces End to Federal Court Oversight of District of Columbia Special Education System

Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Decision Confirms Improvements in Serving Students with Disabilities Under Gray

In a major victory for the District of Columbia, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Interim Attorney General Eugene A. Adams announced that a longstanding challenge to the District’s handling of special education cases was dismissed today. Judge Paul Friedman of the United States District Court for the District dismissed Jones, et al., v. District of Columbia, a class action lawsuit regarding special education.

Jones, filed in 1997, alleged systemic deficiencies in the ability of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to timely implement Hearing Officer Decisions (HODs) and Settlement Agreements (SAs) in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“We have worked tirelessly over the last four years to improve education outcomes for children with disabilities,” said Mayor Gray. “Today’s decision demonstrates that the improvements we have made have helped create the best special education system that the District of Columbia has seen in many, many years. The ruling will enable the District to continue serving as a model for special education reform.”

The Jones suit required that the District timely implement settlement agreements and administrative hearing decisions awarding special education services, according to federal standards. Under the terms of the Consent Decree, the District committed to the timely implementation of Hearing Officer Determinations.

This commitment ensures that every student with a disability receives the necessary educational services and supports in an expeditious manner. 

“This is a tremendous victory for the District of Columbia, for our parents, for our teachers and administrators, and for our residents,” said State Superintendent of Education Jesús Aguirre. “The ruling endorses our education reform efforts and reaffirms our commitment to ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education. I want to acknowledge the hard work of the District’s LEAs, which, with the support of a very dedicated team at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), have turned around special education service delivery in the District. OSSE will continue to provide the robust oversight and technical assistance to LEAs that has supported the District in achieving this milestone.” 

The ruling marks the end of the longstanding litigation and nearly two decades of court oversight of the District’s special education system. In late 2011, on the basis of improved performance, a federal court released the District from oversight in the Blackman portion of the Blackman-Jones class action lawsuit. In 2012, a federal court released the District from oversight in a 1995 class-action suit, Petties v. DC, which related to making prompt payments to private schools and getting students with disabilities bused to school on time. Over the last several years, the District has greatly improved service delivery and demonstrated a sustainable system that will safeguard students’ rights to educational services for years to come.

“Today’s decision shows DCPS’ commitment to ensuring that every student receives the education and services they need and deserve,” said DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson. “I am grateful for the students, parents, teachers, advocates, and community members who partnered with us every step of the way to build a citywide special education system that allows us to better support all of our students. Together, we have established a standard of high expectations for our students while holding ourselves to high standards in serving them.”

“This historic moment has been more than 18 years in the making for the District’s students with disabilities and their families," said Tameria Lewis, Senior Policy Advisory for Special Education for the Public Charter School Board. “This ruling shows that the District is continuing to improve the delivery of special education services, but there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure students with disabilities receive the supports they need to succeed in school and beyond. Our Board is committed to continuing to provide quality educational options to all students.”

Interim Attorney General Adams praised the heroic efforts of both DCPS and OSSE in reaching this landmark achievement. Adams acknowledged the commitment by Mayor Gray to ensuring DCPS, OSSE, and OAG had his support and necessary resources to meet the rigorous targets required by the Consent Decree. He also commended Deputy Attorney General Ellen Efros and Assistant Attorney General Chad Copeland for their tireless work in bringing this litigation to a close.

The District has significantly increased funding for special education through Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) and worked to build capacity throughout both sectors to serve students with disabilities in the community. As a result, the city has reduced the number of students educated in nonpublic settings by 50 percent.

Additional evidence that the District is moving in the right direction includes:

• Standardized reading scores for the District’s fourth-grade students with disabilities improved by 6 percentage points between 2011 and 2013 – even as average scores declined by 2 points at the national level. Students’ math scores improved by 11 points over the same period, while remaining flat nationally.
• For the District’s eighth-graders with disabilities, standardized reading scores improved by 8 percentage points between 2011 and 2013, while advancing by just 1 point nationally. Math scores for these students improved by 9 points over the same period, even though the national average fell by one point.
• District’s on-time rates for special-education evaluations was 67 percent in 2008-2009 – is now currently trending at over 90 percent.
• The District has seen a 70 percent reduction in formal complaints by families with children in special education.