Too many special ed students Costs high: Improving performance in regular classes is key to ending cycle.

March 01, 1997

TEACHERS OF special education students in Baltimore public schools know many of their students would be in regular classrooms had some intervention occurred earlier. These children are in special ed classes because whatever help they needed when they were younger, at school or at home, was never provided. They have developed behavioral problems and academic deficiencies that now make it difficult for them to be taught in a regular classroom.

Baltimore has a larger percentage of special ed students than other cities; 16 percent compared to a national average of 12. It isn't known how many of the more than 17,000 students in Baltimore special ed classes don't really belong in them. But Sister Kathleen Feeley, city administrator for special education, says she strongly believes that "what some of these children need is a good reading teacher."

That certainly would cost much less than keeping such children in special ed. The city spent $8,940 per pupil on special education last year, compared to an average of $5,873 for all students. About 24 percent of the city's $654 million school budget last year went to special education. Nearly 30 percent of the city's 6,000 teachers is assigned to special ed.

Clearly, it would benefit the city to reduce the number of students in special ed. But as it is now, many students whose real academic problem is that they can't read are recommended by their teachers for special ed -- especially if the student is also disruptive. Referring such a child to special ed makes him someone else's problem. It's an easy answer, but the wrong one for children who could do better. For them, special ed classes with low expectations will never provide the knowledge they need to get good jobs and become productive citizens when they do leave school.

The situation illustrates the importance of the court-brokered settlement before the legislature that would put more money into Baltimore schools in exchange for management reforms in the system. So long as regular instruction is deficient, students who shouldn't will end up in special ed. Yet more money for special ed means less for regular classes. It's a vicious cycle that must stop. But it won't without the emphasis on regular classroom instruction the school-funding settlement provides.

Pub Date: 3/01/97

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