Michael Ward has made remarkable progress during his three years at the Linwood Children's Center in Ellicott City, a private school for autistic children, his mother says.
Now, Lynne Ward and other parents of disabled students are worrying that state and local budget problems will prevent children like 11-year-old Michael from getting theeducation they need in private special education schools.
"I cannot think of any in-state placement that could meet my son's needs," Ward said. "Michael would have to go out of state or stay at home. It would not only wreak havoc on Michael, but would devastatethe whole family, because I could not work for a living."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer's doomsday budget would cut from $54 million to$27 million the money spent to place severely disabled children in private special education schools such as Linwood.
In addition, thegovernor has proposed making local school systems pay a greater share of the tuition costs for students in private special education schools -- a cost many will be hard-pressed to pay.
"Some schools havesaid that should the budget cuts be enacted they may not have available placements and may even close for lack of funds," said James Linde, special education placement coordinator for Baltimore public schools.
"If the array of special education services if lessened, we'regoing to have to figure out a way of educating these youngsters either within the public schools or in alternative programs that may not even exist at this particular time," Linde said.
Under federal law, every disabled child is entitled to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Michael was enrolled in Linwood after the Baltimore public schools determined that their system did not have the appropriate programs for him.
Michael's years in public school were "horrendous," said Ward, who lives in Baltimore.
Teachers set unrealistic goals for him and weren't able to give him the structure and attention he needed.
At Linwood, where Michael, 11, lives Monday through Friday, he has improved his social and daily living skills. He no longer runs through a store, screaming and grabbing things, and goes to restaurants with his family on weekends. Although he cannot read and write and has limited speaking abilities, he has learned to communicate in his own way.
Michael's annual tuition at Linwood is $47,000.
"Michael will never go to Harvard or Yale, but the things he's learned at Linwood will make him a functioning adult," Ward said. "Before, he didn't know the difference between right and wrong."
If Linwood were to close, Ward says that Michael's options would be either to stay at home because the public schools have said they no programs for him, or attend an out-of-state special education facility, which costs between $150,000 and $200,000.
"There's no way the state is going to spend that money on my kid," Ward said.
In the past, the state has paid most of the tab for sending achild like Michael to Linwood. The new funding formula proposed by the governor would make it more of a 50-50 proposition.
Currently, the city of Baltimore pays $8,331 toward Michael's tuition and the state pays $38,669. Under the proposed formula, the city would pay $26,277 and the state would pay $20,273.
The possibility of cuts in the state's budget for non-public special education schools combined with the added burden on local school boards has many people wondering if the city and other local school systems would be able to make increased tuition payments.
"I think the city would be between a rock and a hard place," Linde said. "We're obligated to educate these youngsters, but where are the resources going to come from in an economy that is posing problems for us at this particular time?"
If budgetcuts decrease the number of available placements in private special education schools, educators say public school systems will be forcedto develop alternative programs for disabled children.
"We'd be bringing back youngsters who we've already determined we have not beenable to work with effectively and trying to build new programs," Linde said.
If Michael was assigned to attend a public school programfor autistic children, Ward could appeal the decision to the city school system, on the grounds that the school could not provide him with the appropriate least restrictive education. If she loses the appeal, a lawsuit against the school system would be the next step. But ifthe cuts go through, Ward doesn't see the point of pursuing these actions.
"If the money's not there, the money's not there," she said.
Sandi Marx, director of special education for Howard County schools, said that schools such as Linwood will remain necessary until local school systems improve options for handicapped children.
"It'simportant that these schools remain available because they do offer something that public school systems have not been able to duplicate,Marx said.
"Generally, the kids that we serve have needs that aremore intense than the public school programs can provide for them," said F. Warren Sraver, executive director of Linwood. The school has 33 students.
Sraver has appealed to school parents and board members to contact their legislators to express opposition to cutting the special education budget.
The average annual tuition per student at the 27 non-public special education schools in the state was $21,980 for fiscal year 1992, according to Myrna Cardin, executive directorof the Maryland Association of Non-Public Special Education Facilities.
"These are children that under public law are entitled to an appropriate education," Cardin said. "These children must be placed, and we are that alternative. We exist because public schools can't educate these children."