The District of Columbia Public School System (DCPS) is the local (public) school system for the Nation’s Capital. Despite the fact that DCPS has consistently ranked in the top ten in student spending per capita, it has also ranked near the top as the worst performing. At the beginning of this century, DCPS served a steadily decreasing population of approximately 65 thousand students divided amongst 163 elementary, middle, junior, and high schools. A significant percentage of the students are poor and unprepared for learning while living in troubled neighborhoods. This is compounded by an ever-changing leadership that has resisted systemic reform for decades lending itself to a student body lagging the country in academic achievement; even when the comparison is a pool of poor children from different states. Within DCPS’ student population approximately 13 thousand qualified for special education and related services.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is federal legislation that requires school district that receive federal funding to provide “Free and Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE) to children with a disability in the least restrictive environment (LRE). In addition, the student must be evaluated periodically and an individualized education plan (IEP) must be created and reviewed annually. This is to ensure that the school district creates a plan specific to the needs of that child, based upon their disability, which will facilitate further education and independent living.
For decades, DCPS had been criticized by education experts for having a decentralized paper-based method of management vested with the principal at the local school. Until the latter portion of this century’s first decade, DCPS also oversaw itself, assuming the responsibilities and duties of a state and local district. This led to mismanagement of personnel and federal funds, earning DCPS a “high risk” designation by the Department of Education as well as a large number of lawsuits from parent for denying FAPE to children with special needs as well as violating IDEA.
In 1997, DCPS was faced with two class action lawsuits which a judged joined together to form Blackman/Jones. The “Blackman” portion of the suit stated that after parents requested due process hearings, hearings were not held and hearing decisions were not issued on time. The “Jones” portion of the suit stated that once parents received hearing decisions or entered into a settlement agreement with DCPS, DCPS did not provide all the services that had been ordered or agreed to. This has led to overspending on tuition for approximately 2500 students in private schools (antithesis of the LRE), associated transportation and attorney fees; begetting skyrocketing costs and severe budget gaps. Approximately twenty percent of DCPS’ student body was consuming almost twenty-five percent of the budget and fifteen percent of that was being consumed by a subset within that population of about ten percent. This translated into the functional reality of massive teacher layoffs and shifting of funds from disparate sources to address the almost annual 250-million-dollar special education budget for DCPS.
We worked with DCPS leadership and stakeholders to reengineer the special education business process, developed business logic and system requirements around legislative requirements (IDEA, Sections 504 & 508 of Rehabilitation Act/EIT, HIPPA, FERPA, DC Municipal Regulations Chapter 30). Migrating DCPS from the disparate paper-based methods of managing the special education process through the creation and implementation of an electronic centralized enterprise content database management system. The special education tracking system, as required by the settlement agreement, would streamline the process, provide uniformity of documentation, reinforce timeline obligations, and provide centralized oversight through its robust reporting module. The creation of a centralized call center and implementation of quarterly and annual training sessions for special education teachers, related service providers, and principals provided ground level support for the system-wide reform effort. The capstone of this effort was the implementation of an auditing process, utilizing the “Shewart PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act)” process for quality control. This was designed to ensure that the special education process within each individual school reflected data that was accurate, comprehensive and compliant with legislative statutes.
Within one year the data accuracy increased from 75% to 98% leading to the discovery of over one thousand special needs students who had not been counted in the previous year’s enrollment audit. Over the course of the next few years, there would be significant increases in funding from federal reimbursements for Medicaid and the annual December 1 Child Count because of improved data. This would allow DCPS to finally answer several questions that led to Blackmon/Jones: 1) who are all of our special needs students, 2) where are they located, 3) what related services are we obligated to provide, 4) when are their evaluations and IEPs due, and finally 5) are we compliant and rendering services in a timely manner. Based upon meeting specific obligations under the original settlement agreement, a new consent decree was entered by plaintiffs and DCPs in 2007. Finally, in July of 2011, DCPS was released from the Blackmon portion of Consent Decree in Blackman Jones Special Education Cases.