'Special' Dumping Grounds

May 15, 1993

In Baltimore city public schools, there's nothing special in special education. On the contrary, for the 17,000 boys and girls consigned to special education in the city, the program is nothing but a dumping ground for students who have problems learning by means of traditional teaching methods. The purpose of special education is to ensure that students who need something more than the instruction provided in regular classrooms will get the help they need to succeed in school. In Baltimore city schools, however, the reality is that special education is often no education at all.

A new report, issued by Students First, a group advocating reforms in the city schools, describes a system that essentially writes off any student who proves difficult to teach or to discipline. Difficulty learning to read, a behavior problem or an emotional disability such as depression resulting from the murder of a relative or friend -- these are the kinds of situations schools should learn to cope with as a matter of course.

On Thursday, the school system presented its latest plan for reforming special education. But as things stand now -- almost a decade after a lawsuit was filed to force reforms in the system -- any "problem" that would qualify a child for special education seems to serve as an excuse for administrators and teachers to remove children from regular classrooms and essentially write them off.

During the 1991-92 school year, city schools spent, on average, $6,800 for each special education student, compared to $2,300 on regular education students. That money is not well spent. Special education students have lower attendance records, higher dropout rates and are suspended and expelled at twice the rate of special education students who remain in regular classes.

In addition to the $122 million instructional budget for special education, the city spends large amounts of money segregating these students in separate classes and even busing them to separate schools. Baltimore city public schools remove special education students from regular classrooms at a rate twice the statewide average -- an expensive and ineffective strategy that further reduces the dollars available for regular education programs.

Reports like the one from Students First bring discouraging news about public schools. But it's important to remember that schools can work -- and that some do. The report cites programs like "Success for All" and the Orton-Gillingham multisensory approach to reading that are highly effective in reducing referrals to special education. Results from these programs prove that when schools embrace their mission, students can learn and achieve, regardless of special needs.

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