Options students. Photo from Options PCS.

Last night the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) took the first step towards closing a school serving many students with special needs that has been accused of numerous failings. However, newly released documents show that the PCSB knew of widespread violations at the school in June of last year and took no apparent action.

DC’s Attorney General has alleged that former managers of Options PCS diverted at least $3 million to their own pockets, and federal investigators are now looking into whether former leaders of the school committed Medicaid fraud. Several current and former teachers at the school have told the Washington Post and Greater Greater Education that the diversion resulted in a lack of funds that caused egregious violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the federal law that mandates special education services.

A 2012 report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), which was released to GGE, details the extent of the violations at Options. When asked what actions the PCSB or its staff took in response to the report, PCSB’s spokesperson said only that the “PCSB works with OSSE on issues of IDEA compliance.”

Under IDEA, public school systems are required to identify students with disabilities, conduct assessments, and then determine what special education accommodations each student requires. These accommodations go into an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which carries the weight of federal law.

OSSE is responsible for issuing regular reports on each public school’s compliance with IDEA. However, OSSE cannot punish or close a charter school. Only the PCSB can do that, even if there are widespread violations of federal special education law at the school.

PCSB spokesperson Theola Labbé-DeBose said that the board “uses OSSE reports and takes their feedback or warnings on issues.” She said that the PCSB itself has no staff designated to monitor special education compliance at charter schools.

The 2012 Options PCS special education compliance report from OSSE included the following findings:

  • Of 66 students whose IEPs required services related to behavior, only 9 received at least the minimum services they were entitled to.
  • Of 24 students whose IEPs required speech therapy, only 2 had this service delivered in full or more.
  • In March 2010, OSSE randomly sampled IEPs of 4 students age 16 or older to see if they included actual goals for the students to achieve, as required by IDEA, and found that none did. OSSE examined sample IEPs 4 more times over the course of the following year and each time found that none included any goals.
  • In the 2011-2012 school year, Options lost 3 claims brought by students against the school for failure to deliver special education services. However, none of the changes demanded by hearing officers, known as Hearing Officers Determinations (HODs), were implemented by OSSE even though the deadline for all of them had passed.

Special education oversight is broken

The PCSB never mentioned these reports last night, or that it knew of these widespread violations. So, what does the board know now that it didn’t know over a year ago? Why is it only considering closing the school now?

The reason appears to be that mismanagement at Options became an issue for the PCSB only after Washington Post reporter Emma Brown uncovered large-scale financial mismanagement at the school in October. However, it’s clear from the OSSE report that the PCSB knew or should have known about the damaging consequences of that mismanagement for the school’s 320 students long before October.

The only logical conclusion is that there are no consequences for a school that denies federally mandated special education services to students, even on a mass scale. The only time schools pay for denial of special education services is when a student’s parents are able to retain attorneys to sue the school.

In the case of Options, 100% of students are low-income, according to the PCSB. That means their parents are less able to afford legal services.

But the ability to defend your child’s right to federally mandated special education services shouldn’t be a privilege of the wealthy. Until violations of special education law result in consequences for schools, they will be.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.