Gradual reform for special ed Booker won't pursue immediate plan to reform program

Wants to identify faults

Mayor says re-testing could reduce number of those in program

September 26, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Liz Bowie and Debbie M. Price contributed to this article.

Baltimore schools chief Robert Booker says he will not pursue an immediate plan to shrink the system's special-education population, or to develop remedial programs for the thousands of special education students whose only disability might be that they have not been taught to read.

Booker said he will talk with teachers and principals to identify faults in the way special education placements are made, in the hope of reducing the number of special education pupils. He also will count on the new citywide reading curriculum to help illiterate students.

"I think we need to know why the population is as high as it is, and to figure out what we may be doing that over-classifies children. That's a priority," Booker said. "But the academic part of our master plan should address reading for special education children."

Booker's comments come as others urge more drastic action to rein in the system's unwieldy special education programs.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke suggested that an effort to re-test special education pupils could reduce the program's numbers -- nearly one of every five city students -- by one-third.

Johns Hopkins researcher James McPartland said the system should make a priority of finding a way to limit special education spending per student -- three times what the schools spend for regular education.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the special education program, which has produced a generation of children unable to read the street signs in their neighborhoods, is "assigning individuals to stay in the shadows of life."

"We cannot afford to put money into anything less than a first-class system," Glendening said. "And right now, with millions invested in it, it's not that first-class system. We will all expect and demand significant improvement."

A three-part series published in The Sun last week highlighted problems with special education in Baltimore: The city ranks first in Maryland in special education spending and last in budgeting for regular students. A bitter, 14-year federal court battle over the program has produced little more than staggering legal bills and file cabinets full of arcane requirements. In addition, a giveaway program sought to compensate wronged special education students with televisions and computers rather than tutoring or training.

Booker, who was hired in July to head city school reform, said fixing special education will be a priority for him. He said he will meet with the plaintiffs and the judge in the federal lawsuit to improve the system's relationship with them.

Booker also said he will embark on a "very close examination" of the process that places children in special education, because he believes that they are placed too readily in such programs.

However, he could not say when that examination might begin or when the special education population might begin to decline.

As the system puts more detail into its plan to reform education in general, Booker's academic plans for special education also should be fleshed out.

A team of the system's top administrators has been assigned to examine how to make the items in the district's master plan more specific for teachers and principals, Booker said, and they could suggest remedial reading programs or the hiring of reading experts.

Booker also pointed out that many changes have begun. Compliance with the court's requirements is greater, and workers are being held accountable for the jobs they are doing, he said.

More urgent response

But other school observers offered their suggestions in the wake of The Sun's series -- and some suggested a more urgent response by the system.

"I would have some reading strategy courses for young people who aren't reading," said McPartland, director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Hopkins. "The idea is, you have bunch of kids in middle and high school who have managed to get through the system without learning to read very well. They need remedial help."

McPartland, like Schmoke, also said re-testing special education children would be wise.

State Sen. Barbara Hoffman said re-testing of special education children might not be cost-effective, but the system could conduct a "reasonable review" of children classified as learning-disabled. Experts say that category is most likely to be filled with children who are not disabled.

Hoffman said the system should dedicate resources to early education. "Make sure all of these kids are reading by third grade. That's the solution," she said.

Schmoke, who said he felt like a modern-day Sisyphus while trying to settle the system's special education legal entanglement, said all parties involved would have to agree before any re-testing could occur.

He said he suggested it a few years ago, and "you would have thought I had suggested something horrible."

DTC But, on the issue of reducing special education numbers, Schmoke is unwavering.

"There is just no need to have 17 percent of the children in special education," he said.

Glendening said fixing the problems must be a priority for Booker and the school board. "The people of Baltimore deserve better," Glendening said.

Pub Date: 9/26/98

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