Auditors say special education misused Some children in program don't belong there, they say

October 23, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County school officials are wasting money putting children struggling to learn to read into costly special education programs meant for mentally disabled and autistic children, according to an independent audit.

"A lot of students are placed in special education because they are not learning how to read," said auditor Steven M. Guttentag. "We heard this from everyone."

As a result, the county's special education budget has increased by 28 percent since 1993. Since that time, the number of children placed in special education has gone up by 27 percent while the general student population has risen 5 percent, the team from Peat Marwick of Washington told the school board Wednesday.

Auditors spoke with teachers, principals and school psychologists as part of their examination of the program.

The effect of a bloated special education program -- $50 million of the $454 million school budget this year -- can be felt throughout the school system, they said.

Because federal law requires school systems to provide special education for any child who qualifies, administrators often send students to private schools or to schools outside their communities. That costs thousands of dollars.

Some crowded schools have no room for special education classes. And the emphasis on special education means that the system overlooks about 20 percent of the county's 74,275 students who are neither gifted nor eager learners but don't qualify for special education.

Typical problem

Other jurisdictions share Anne Arundel's problem, the auditors said, in that more and more children who don't catch on as quickly as their peers get labeled as disabled. Twenty years ago, experts say, parents were loath to admit that their failing children needed help. Now parents desperate for help look to the schools to solve their children's learning problems and don't worry about stigmas.

"The parents definitely push for it," board member Joseph Foster said. "They have found that their children get the attention that they need. The question is why aren't these kids learning and what are we going to do about it. Is it truly a disability, or are there other reasons they are not learning?"

Full report later

The auditors released an executive summary of their report Wednesday and are expected to deliver a full report Oct. 30.

Board member Thomas Florestano said he will look in that final report for specific reasons for the enrollment increase.

"What is the problem here?" he said. "Is it because we are more sophisticated in diagnosing learning problems, or is it because special education has become a dumping ground for discipline problems? Are some children lazy learners, or is it all of the above?"

The summary report recommends that administrators develop ways to document how a problem student is tutored before the student is referred to a special education program. Principals and general education teachers should make special education referrals, not school psychologists or special education teachers, the auditors said.

All schools should have special education programs so that children can attend their neighborhood schools, rather than be bused to other, more expensive schools, they said.

Cost was split

The county and the school system split the $110,000 cost of the audit under state legislation enacted two years ago that provides for such arrangements.

"We could have avoided looking at special education for a long, long time," said Superintendent Carol S. Parham. "But because DTC we wanted to know if there is a better way to do things, we went ahead and did it."

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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