Outlook ‘Gray’ for DC Special-Ed Reform

Published October 11, 2010

A plan to distribute school vouchers to special-needs students throughout the District of Columbia faces an uncertain future following the defeat of incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty (D).

Fenty, a reformer, lost a primary election fight to City Councilman Vincent Gray, who received more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the Washington Teachers Union and American Federation of Teachers.

DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced plans in July to overhaul the city’s special education programs in order to cut costs and stem the outflow of students to schools in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. To that end, she proposed distributing vouchers for special-needs students to enroll in private schools within the district.

Likely Mayor Opposes Vouchers
Private school vouchers have a precedent in Washington, DC. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is scheduled to end next year as a result of being zeroed out by President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress, served nearly 1,700 low-income students.

Approximately one-quarter of the District’s special-education students are already enrolled in private schools and receive some form of tuition assistance from the DC Public Schools system.

The base tuition covered is $10,466 per child per year. Rhee’s proposal would increase the amount to a maximum $38,730 per child per year.

Rhee’s Job in Doubt
Barring an unlikely Republican upset in the city’s Nov. 2 general election, Gray will take over the mayor’s office in January. Gray campaigned against Rhee’s reforms and has loudly and repeatedly opposed vouchers.

Gray has not announced his plans for Rhee, and Rhee has not said whether she will resign. During the campaign, however, Rhee said she “would have difficulty” working for Gray. 

Dave Hedgepeth, a Republican candidate for the DC City Council’s Ward 3 seat, says he is certain Rhee’s tenure will end once Gray assumes office. Hedgepeth noted Gray’s support from the teachers unions and said campaign donors will expect “a return on their investment.” 

“I think Gray can’t afford to keep Chancellor Rhee. I think basically he owes too many favors to too many people,” said Hedgepeth.

Rhee Made Enemies
Appointed by Fenty in 2007, Rhee spearheaded intense efforts to reform the District of Columbia public school system, where student test scores were among the worst in the United States and the high school dropout rate topped 50 percent when she took office. She introduced new school-level data-collection systems to track teacher performance, gave underperforming teachers an ultimatum to improve their results, and fired more than 1,000 teachers when they failed to do so. Rhee also closed 21 failing schools.

Rhee’s robust reform efforts won her many admirers across the country—including Oprah Winfrey, who brought Rhee onto her TV show for a September segment and hailed her as “a warrior woman for our time.”

But Rhee’s reforms embittered many DC teachers and some parents and community activist groups. Among their criticisms were that Rhee did not always consult teachers and parents when closing schools, and that she generally did not solicit as much community input as they would have liked. 

“It’s a pattern of how Chancellor Rhee governs. It’s ‘we’re going to roll it out and you deal with it’ instead of saying, ‘why don’t we come together and work it out,'” said Michael Brown, a Democratic at-large City Council member. “Instead of getting buy-in up front, they’d choose to roll it out and deal with the consequences later. That slows down progress.”

Gray Promises New Rules
Brown looks forward to Gray’s tenure and anticipates the new mayor taking a more conciliatory approach toward the interest groups supporting the current system and going slow on reforms, including school choice.  

“Mayor Gray will say, ‘Sounds like a good idea. Let’s get the parents in the room and see what they think.’ His style is dealing with inclusion in the front end and in the back end,” said Brown.  

Gray’s campaign platform included a pledge to “work to build capacity to meet special education needs in local schools.” His campaign platform contained few specifics, with the notable exception of pledging tighter regulation and keeping more children in the system: Fixed tuition rates for special-education providers, and new requirements that more young children with developmental delays be placed in “mainstream” pre-K and infant-and-toddler programs.

“We waste tens of millions of dollars paying for legal fees, transportation, and private education for our special-needs kids outside District boundaries. Instead, we should serve their needs successfully inside our own system,” Gray’s platform stated.

Feasibility Study Planned

Rhee says she will continue her work for at least the next few months. Among her remaining tasks are scheduling and hosting a series of special-education community meetings to seek opinions of parents, teachers, and other community members on what they want in special-education reform.

Her office also announced plans to conduct a feasibility study to assess special-education reform options and their associated costs and benefits.

“The combination of the community meetings and the feasibility study will provide DCPS with critical information to help inform the next steps,” said Safiya Jafari-Simmons, assistant press secretary for DCPS.

Hedgepeth said any community meeting that takes place in Ward 3 would see much public affirmation of Rhee and her reforms. Among other things, the ward’s Alice Deal Public Middle School got an overhaul that raised it from a very low-performing school to one with International Baccalaureate status.
“It’s going to depend on the ward,” Hedgepeth said. “In my ward there will be a tremendous outpouring of support and pleas for her to stay. But I think in other wards the reaction might be ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.'”     

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.