Special education is the most expensive department in the county school system's $330.1 million budget and also the most complex. But howeffective is it?
Just ask the military families with disabled students who make a point of requesting assignment to Fort Meade. Anne Arundel County and Fort Lewis, Wash., are the top two choices for military families with children requiring special education.
"Soldiers are asked to make choices about their next move," says Kathy Baker, Fort Meade Community Liaison coordinator. "Some maneuverto get here."
Baker attributes the preference to an extensive school program that has had experience dealing with a full range of disabilities.
Fredrealea Shaw is stationed at Fort Meade. Her 7-year-old son, Bennell, spent the first 3 1/2 years of his life in the hospital. Now, he's a special education student at West Meade Elementary, where he is being mainstreamed -- worked into the general student population.
"He started school at age 5 on the level of a 3-year-old," his mother said. "Now he is 7 and at the level of a 6-year, 6-month-old. I'm pleased with the special education program at West Meade."
Of the more than 11,600 students of military families in the county, 371 -- 3.2 percent -- are enrolled in special education classes. By contrast, about 14 percent of the general student population is enrolled in at least one special education course.
This year, the federal government will pay $240,000 to the county's school system to help defray the costs of educating military dependents.
Not everyoneis pleased that the military thinks so highly of the county's special education system. For years, critics have charged that such an influx of military families helps drain the special education budget.
Ken Lawson, the school system's assistant superintendent for student support services, believes those concerns are blown out of proportion.
"We did a study to determine the level of participation of military-dependent families and whether it was greater than non-military families," Lawson says. "We assumed it would be disproportionate. Yes,there were significant numbers, but the percent wasn't way out of line, in spite of the Army directing families here."
State, federal guidelines
Of course, county school officials have little say overwhere the military sends its personnel. But insofar as special education is concerned, that lack of control is nothing new -- almost every aspect of special education is controlled by strict federal and state guidelines.
Public Law 94-142, requiring that all children, no matter their handicaps, be provided a public education through age 21, has been on the federal books since 1975. Principals who want to make sure they are following the letter of the law swear by it. Parentsconcerned that their children's needs are met know it by heart.
But Law 94-142 isn't static. School systems must continue to monitor the courts for amendments that may drastically change what services they must offer.
Those changes often come with substantial price tags attached.
For students in special centers, student-teacher ratios are set at nearly one teacher or aide per child. Specially-designedschool buses, with seat belts or wheelchair lifts, are required.
Every three years, Anne Arundel County is evaluated by a team from the state Department of Education. The county is due for a review next year. The last time the county was evaluated, it was responsible for teaching 8,600 disabled students. That number has since risen to 9,100.
During the last evaluation, a team of eight state and regional special education professionals reported some problems, mostly in bookkeeping. Annual financial reports were inconsistent with the approved budget, some student records were incomplete and the county's "Parent-Guardian Rights" brochure failed to list all parental rights as required by law (it has been updated since the last review).
The state surveyed 33 parents of children receiving special education aboutinformation the school system was required to provide them. Fifty-eight percent said they were informed of their legal rights as a parentof a handicapped child; 91 percent said they were asked for written permission to have their children tested for special education; 27 percent said they were told that free transportation would be provided for their children, and 31 percent said they were told that signing their child's education plan meant they were approving it.
The evaluating team, however, gave the school system high marks for staff training and its efforts toward mainstreaming. They also cited the county's Parent Infant Program as a successful method to solicit communitysupport in early identification of special education students and making sure parents understand the services available to them.
"By and large, Anne Arundel County is doing fine," said Jerry White, special education specialist at the State Department of Education in Baltimore.
Lawsuit began in 1986