Federal civil rights officials have told five of Maryland's largest county school systems that minority students are overrepresented in special education programs, and ordered them to find ways to remedy the imbalance and ensure that their practices are proper.
Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George's counties are among 16 districts nationwide placed under review since September by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for potential discrimination in special education. Another 20 districts across the country are expected to be added.
The reviews in Maryland began after newspaper articles, complaints over the years and comments at community meetings alerted civil rights officials to a potential problem, said Brenda L. Wolff, deputy director of the agency's regional office in Philadelphia.
A statistical test on the five counties' 1994-1995 enrollment data determined that minorities -- particularly black students -- were disproportionally represented in three classifications that qualify students for special education: mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance and learning disability.
"For some time we've been aware of problems in Maryland," Ms. Wolff said, adding that state and county officials are cooperating with her agency, and the districts are in various stages of plans to address imbalances.
Montgomery County, which has been working on the issue for years on its own, already has a plan. Harford County submitted a preliminary draft last month.
Most plans are expected to include strategies to work more intensively with low-achieving youngsters in regular-education classrooms to correct problems before the children are screened for special education. The federal office also wants districts to examine data to flag abuses in referral procedures and scrutinize testing practices for biases that might favor whites.
"The differences that are often considered [disabilities] are often actually cultural differences," Ms. Wolff said.
The agency is contacting parent groups and NAACP chapters to set up focus groups in each county.
'It doesn't mean a violation'
"If the numbers don't improve, we'll want to know why," Ms. Wolff said. "It doesn't mean a [civil rights] violation. We hope that with the strategies in place, the numbers will go down."
Correcting imbalances in special education is one of the civil rights office's top priorities nationwide. In Maryland, OCR officials are working as partners with the state and the school districts, reflecting the agency's new collaborative approach to pushing its agenda -- a departure from its stick-waving image.
Still, the agency has the power to deny federal funding to school districts found to discriminate. The loss of federal funds in Baltimore County, for instance, would mean about $21.8 million.
Such a threat forced the Calhoun County, Ga., school board in 1994 to end its practice of routinely placing black students -- even some who outscored white peers on tests -- in classes for underachievers and placing whites in classes for high achievers.
No one expects a confrontation here, but some Maryland educators are skeptical of the OCR's statistical analysis. Some question the test the agency used -- called the chi-square test -- to determine the significance of enrollment figures.
Under that analysis, for instance, the agency flagged the numbers in Prince George's as a warning sign, despite comparable figures for the numbers of black students in the general population (70 percent) and in the learning disabled category (73 percent).
The same process shows white students there also overrepresented in two of the three special education categories.
Richard J. Steinke, assistant state superintendent for special education, predicts that the Maryland districts will come up with plans that will be emulated elsewhere. But he was concerned about making racial judgments on a statistical basis when so much of educational performance is linked to income and related issues, such as access to medical care.
Relying on statistics
Mr. Steinke said he also worries that relying too much on statistics could force districts to set up cumbersome procedures for enrolling minority students in special education, which could limit access for children who need it.
"You have to be careful not to create barriers," he said.
Before the civil rights office started its review, Baltimore County was working on ways to intervene with low achievers before referring them to special education, and has been scrutinizing its referrals in the mental retardation category for a year and a half, said Richard M. Milbourne, an assistant county school superintendent.
But he acknowledged that there is room for more scrutiny. "The numbers would suggest you review your practices," he said.