Class Issue: Many Vs. Few

Impact Of Inclusion Of Special-ed Students Focus Of School Debate

Feaga Raised Cost Question

Federal Law Requires Mainstreaming

Some Oppose How It's Done

April 20, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

When Howard County Council member Charles C. Feaga said last month that the county schools are spending too much money on special education, he jumped straight into a hot debate over the needs of the many vs. the extraordinary needs of a few.

The few are students like Tyler Carr, a gregarious eighth-grader with Down syndrome, whose struggles with math and reading mean he needs individual help for several hours each school day.

The many are his eighth-grade classmates at Clarksville Middle School and their parents.

The county's schools are considered among the best in the state at educating children with special needs. But critics question the escalating costs of this -- though not often as publicly as Feaga for fear of being considered insensitive to children with disabilities.

That tension was felt in the furious response to Feaga's comments: letters to the editor, calls to his office and a bitterness that remains among parents of disabled children.

"I took quite a beating in the papers, but I think there are a lot of people out there who quietly support what I had to say," Feaga says.

Feaga, a 5th District Republican, may have stumbled into the issue, but it's one that has been around since the Howard system began moving five years ago to instruct children with disabilities in the regular classrooms as much as possible, in line with federal mandates.

The Howard schools are spending about $25.5 million on special-education services this school year, about 10.6 percent of the school system's $240 million budget.

The special-education budget has increased 13.2 percent over the past two years, compared with a 10.9 percent increase in the overall budget.

About 10.6 percent of Howard students (slightly more than 4,200) receive special-education services, a percentage similar to those in other area school systems.

Feaga -- who suggested that special-education services ought to be reduced because they're attracting too many children with disabilities to the county -- is not the only one to worry about special education and its effect on the rising cost of education in Howard.

In the past two years, the school board has cut almost $300,000 from proposed special-education funding increases.

And some parents privately are becoming more critical of keeping such children in neighborhood schools, fearing an increase in disruptions to instruction.

"It may work for some children to be mainstreamed into regular classrooms, but they need to do a better job of keeping kids who don't belong out," says one Atholton High School parent, who refuses to be named for fear of offending parents of disabled children and hurting her family's business.

"There are too many special-education kids with behavior problems who get away with stuff, and some of the classes get so overwhelmed that my kids don't end up learning as much as they should," this parent says.

Benefits for all

Yet for Tyler, as well as for the vast majority of Howard students who receive some type of special-education services in their neighborhood schools, the opportunity to participate in regular classes has done wonders for him.

"Tyler works hard, has lots of friends and is learning a lot," says his mother, Kathy Carr, a third-grade teacher in the Howard schools. "He mixes well with the other students, and the extra support he gets for math and reading [is] paying off."

Tyler's instructional program illustrates how the Howard schools are adhering to federal law requiring students with disabilities to be taught in the "least restrictive environment."

The days of students with disabilities being tucked away in separate classrooms are past for all but those with the most severe disabilities.

State, federal laws

In the past few years, a series of complex state and federal regulations and court decisions have generally interpreted the law to mean that disabled children are to receive services in their neighborhood schools and to be included in regular classrooms whenever possible. This is known in special-education jargon as "inclusion."

The Howard students who receive special-education services in neighborhood schools are mainstreamed in regular classes to varying degrees, depending upon the nature of their disabilities.

About 75 students with multiple disabilities attend a separate program at Cedar Lane School, and about 85 are enrolled in special-education programs at private schools, paid from public funds.

"The research is overwhelming that when children with special needs are included in regular classrooms with appropriate staffing and training, it's a wonderful education experience for all of the children," says Beverly Strong, who serves as the special-education liaison for the University of Maryland College Park's office of laboratory experiences. She places students in special-education teacher-training positions.

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