State flunks special-ed test

Freeze on aid: Glendening, like predecessors, won't pay fair share for teaching special-ed students.

May 18, 2001

MARYLAND'S state government has fallen horribly short of its obligation to the 112,000 students in special-education programs in public schools.

For two decades, governors have chosen to ignore the rising costs of teaching kids with disabilities, thus dumping enormous expenses on the counties and Baltimore City.

While the number of students requiring special-education classes has soared, state funding has remained in a time warp: The base grant to each subdivision is the same as it was in 1981. The state's overall special-education contribution to local public schools hasn't changed in 10 years.

That has placed localities in an untenable bind. With special-education enrollment growing at 21 percent a year over the past decade, county executives and Baltimore's mayor have had to reach deep into their pockets.

The result often has been shifting funds from other critical education needs or cutting money from other local programs. It also has increased pressure for tax increases: 15 of the state's 24 subdivisions substantially raised taxes or fees last year.

All this comes on top of a severe shortage of special-education teachers and a lack of adequate reading training in the colleges producing Maryland's future teachers.

As Sun reporters Mike Bowler and Carl Schoettler noted in recent stories, teachers coming out of colleges are ill-prepared to identify reading problems and address them early. Yet most kids in special education have reading disabilities.

On top of that, not enough special-education teachers are being graduated. The state needs another 1,250 of these instructors this fall to meet demand.

Hard-pressed county executives are doing their best: Janet S. Owens' budget in Anne Arundel calls for 90 new special-ed teachers; James N. Robey's budget in Howard calls for another 136 special-ed teachers and 113 teaching assistants; and C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's Baltimore County budget calls for 49 new special-ed teachers and 114 instructional aides.

All this extra money is coming out of local tax sources because the state refuses to be a full financial partner.

The state pays a miserly 15 percent of the $1 billion spent on special education. That's nearly a 30 percent drop in the percentage of state support a decade ago.

The state's situation is even worse in transporting special-education and disabled students. Seventeen years ago, the state paid 95 percent of these costs. Now it pays only 36 percent. Meanwhile, student transportation expenses have soared by 180 percent since 1981. Once again, local governments have been abandoned by Annapolis.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been asked repeatedly to rectify this situation. An interim report from a state panel on education needs, the Thornton commission, sought $64 million more this year for special education.

The Maryland Association of Counties made this its top priority. Maryland's school superintendent endorsed the plan, too.

The governor, though, was unmoved.

Mr. Glendening will have a final chance before he leaves office to reverse Annapolis' neglect of special education.

He should make every effort in next year's budget to adopt the Thornton commission's special-education request. These are the public school kids most in need of his help.

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