Special ed: A decade of bloat and failure Schools: City students often enter special education as illiterates - and stay that way. Meanwhile, the program's Rolls-Royce price tag leaves the cupboard bare for regular kids.

September 20, 1998|By Debbie M. Price, Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Debbie M. Price, Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF Researchers Paul McCardell and Dee Lyon contributed to this report.

Fourteen years ago, Vaughn G. became the unknown soldier of special education, a West Baltimore boy whose name was chosen to lead a class-action lawsuit seeking better schooling for disabled youngsters.

In the decade since Vaughn G. vs. The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore was settled amid high expectations, neither the young man nor the crusade named for him has fared well.

Though ever larger and more costly, Baltimore's special education program is widely viewed as a failure -- evidenced by court records, test scores and unemployable teen-agers who finish high school unable to read the street signs in their neighborhoods.

What is less well known is that spending on special education is draining money from general education and weakening the backbone of the entire system. As a result, Baltimore's regular students -- most of whom are poor -- get the least expensive, most stripped-down public schooling in Maryland.

And Vaughn G.? Today, Vaughn Garris, 28 and twice convicted of child abuse, sits in prison.

"I don't know if the lawsuit helped anyone," says Garris. "It didn't help me. look where I am."

The same might be said for the school system.


* The city ranks last in Maryland in spending per pupil for regular education, below even Appalachia-poor Allegany County, and first in spending per student for special education, according to state figures. Baltimore schools, which include costs not counted by the state, say they spend averages of $3,100 per pupil in regular education and $9,700 per pupil in special education.

* Baltimore has more students in special education, proportionally, than any other major city except Boston. With almost 18 percent of its 108,000 students officially labeled "disabled," the city's rate is half again higher than the national norm 12 percent.

* In the last six years, spending for special education has grown 50 percent, while funding for the rest of the students has increased 7 percent -- not even enough to keep up with inflation.

* This imbalance perpetuates a downward spiral: A shoddy regular education program produces students who are capable of learning to read but do not. These children are placed in special education. The ranks of special education grow, draining still more resources from regular education.

"They keep creating a child that can be called educationally handicapped because they didn't have something better to do with him when he first appeared on the scene," says Winifred DePalma, one of the lead attorneys in the Vaughn G. lawsuit. "If more of these kids were being served in the regular classroom, no question you'd have fewer children in special education."

Disparities in funding

For more than a decade, even as the emphasis on special education has grown, the quality of the overall system in Baltimore has declined. Last year, when then-interim Chief Executive Officer Robert Schiller called city schools "academically bankrupt," few argued.

Only one in nine Baltimore third-graders passed the state's reading test last year; fifth-graders were almost two years behind their peers on national tests. And for the last several years only a fourth of the ninth-graders at the city's zoned high schools graduated.

At Western High School, where 85 percent of the graduates go to college, students sold candy to raise money for goggles to wear in science lab and, until this fall, used textbooks that were more than a decade old.

"In an age of information, we had always hoped to get textbooks that at least listed DNA," says former principal Ann Carusi, who was promoted recently to area executive officer.

So many "extras" have disappeared from school budgets that inner-city principals, such as Bernice Whelchel at City Springs Elementary, turn to local businesses to raise money for computers and playgrounds. Teachers ask not for luxuries but for pocket change to buy pencils, paper and cardboard letters for the blackboard. Books for empty library shelves this spring came from suburban children in Pikesville and Howard County.

The disparities between what special education and other students receive are obvious.

In some of the city's toughest schools, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers grapple with classrooms of 35 pupils and more, while next door, a special education teacher works with four or five pupils.

Fewer than a third of the city's 124 elementary schools have a full-time art, music, physical education teacher or librarian. Yet, in the last two years, the school system has added 570 new staffers for special education, including 105 one-on-one aides, each assigned to a single student, all day.

Money is lavished on services such as transportation for special education students, who ride much-ridiculed yellow "cheese" buses while other students their age walk or take mass transit. Last year, the city spent $15.5 million to bus 4,500 special education students -- about $362 a month per person, or more than one-and-a-half times the price of a monthly Baltimore-Washington Amtrak pass.

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