Legal war sinks effort to improve special ed

March 29, 2002|By Kalman R. Hettleman

U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE Marvin J. Garbis' recent threat to hold in contempt top Baltimore City school officials for failure to properly maintain a computer tracking system is the latest salvo in a war over special education that's been fought in court since 1984.

Unfortunately, the computer glitches are peripheral to the central issue and ugly truth about the long-running lawsuit: Despite federal court supervision since the mid-1980s, the city's special education program is still failing to significantly improve the academic performance of students with disabilities.

The guilty parties include not just the defendant city school officials but the judge, plaintiffs and lawyers.

Like generals fighting the last war, they have failed to shift the focus of special education reform from legal compliance to the quality of instruction.

As documented in my report, "Still Getting It Wrong - The Continuing Failure of Special Education in the Baltimore City Public Schools," published recently by the Abell Foundation, millions of dollars each year are being wasted on excessive paperwork and bureaucracy at the expense of academic interventions, particularly in reading.

The percentages of special education students who scored satisfactory or better on last year's Maryland performance tests (MSPAP) in reading were 9.6 percent in third grade, 5.6 percent in fifth grade and 1 percent in eighth grade.

Worse, the huge gap in test scores between special education and general education students widened.

Why has reform bogged down in this way, despite the good intentions of all parties?

First, lawyers, not educators, dominate the court proceedings that drive the city special education program. Lawyers know a lot about adversarial combat and procedural remedies but nothing about how to educate children with learning problems.

Their legal skills served well at the start of the lawsuit in 1984, when severely disabled children were being denied access to appropriate educational programs.

Procedural safeguards were put in place, and over the years, the city school system has made outstanding progress in meeting the safeguards.

But the special needs of children have changed dramatically. Today, most children in special education programs have mild learning problems, not severe physical and mental disabilities.

And the burning issue is no longer access. It's how to provide special education students with high-quality extra instruction and other services they need to achieve academic success.

Still, the lawsuit drones on with virtually no let-up in the focus on procedural rules and paperwork and flare-ups like the current computer problems.

Unfortunately, city school officials have failed to fill the instructional vacuum. The top special education administrators are strong on procedural enforcement but weak on developing the best instructional practices.

And the New Board of School Commissioners and the chief executive officer have failed to take charge. City schools have achieved notable gains under a master plan for general education, but there is no comparable blueprint for improving special education.

The board and CEO fear to rock the legal boat. But there is much they can do without violating court decrees.

For example, special education and general education can be better integrated by ending the special education program's near-autonomy and placing it under the supervision of the chief academic officer. Special education teachers can receive much more training in reading. Early academic interventions can be increased by redirecting the excessive spending on paperwork and compliance monitoring.

As city officials step forward, the legal process must step back. The poor academic results of special education students must no longer be hidden beneath mountains of court documents and maneuvers.

Otherwise, special education will remain not very special, and children with disabilities will continue to be deprived of their academic potential.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore City school board and a former state human resources secretary. His e-mail address is

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