Revamp of special education ordered

Monitoring report notes infractions of federal law

state risks losing funds

March 30, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Maryland has to repair its special education programs by August or risk losing millions in grant money, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which has given the state an unfavorable monitoring report indicating multiple infractions of federal law.

"This has been a longstanding problem," said Ruth Ryder, director of the Division of Monitoring and State Improvement Planning at the federal Office of Special Education Programs in Washington.

But new federal oversight procedures, education legislation -- such as last year's No Child Left Behind Act -- and increased pressure from advocacy groups have finally made it a problem that is impossible to ignore.

The 2001 monitoring report, based on 1999 data, found that Maryland:

Often fails to outline education plans for disabled children based on their situations.

Lacks an effective monitoring process to ensure compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as amended in 1997.

Fails to offer support needed to teach disabled children in typical classrooms and to answer complaints in a timely manner.

Has a disproportionately large number of minority children placed in special education programs.

The federal overseers said their greatest concern is that Maryland appears to be among the worst offenders in teaching special-needs children in restricted settings, rather than integrating them into general-education classroom settings as much as possible.

The disability act requires that special-needs children be educated in regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools with provisions for their needs -- the least restrictive environment -- unless the child's particular disability makes this impossible. But many Maryland districts cling to a model that pulls pupils out of typical classes and into separate rooms or buildings.

"People were telling us there were a number of kids in separate placements that, had they had some kind of supports and services in place, they could have functioned in a regular classroom," Ryder said.

The federal pressure for improvement of inclusion has meant the state has had to make some quick decisions about what inclusion and least restrictive environment really mean and how to go about achieving them.

Leaving no child behind

The No Child Left Behind Act may out-muscle the disability act in getting things moving. It includes demands that all children be assessed on general education curriculum and that their scores be kept separate for tracking to show improvement -- that means special education pupils, too.

"I'm so loving that law more and more every day," said Kelli Nelson, co-director of the Special Education Leadership Project, which presented a Blueprint for Change document to the Maryland General Assembly in January designed to educate politicians about the need for greater inclusion.

"No Child Left Behind puts an accountability measure in there that was never" in the disability act, which "is about compliance; a lot of it is ambiguous and left open to interpretation," Nelson said. "From my perspective, there's no ambiguousness about No Child Left Behind. You either make progress, or you don't get funding."

The challenges are many.

Teachers, overburdened with improving achievement efforts, would have to be trained to educate children with a wide variety of abilities at once. Schools would also have to be equipped with medical staff able to handle physically and mentally challenged children.

Hallways would have to accommodate wheelchairs. Principals without special education experience would have to overcome their fears of the unknown. And money would have to flow to make it all happen -- this when capital and operating budgets are facing stiff reductions.

"The federal government's expectation is higher than is realistic for Maryland at this point," said Carol Ann Baglin, an assistant state superintendent for the Division of Special Education.

The national goal, suggested by federal special education office in June, is to have 90 percent of children with disabilities educated in general-education classrooms for 80 percent or more of their school day.

No state meets it, though North Dakota and Vermont, which use a collaborative teaching model that pairs special educators with general educators, come closest with 78 percent of their special education students in class 80 percent or more of the time.

Maryland averages 46 percent of its 112,525 disabled students in the desired range, though the numbers vary greatly by county.

Six counties -- including Dorchester, Queen Anne's and Frederick -- have 70 percent to 82 percent of their disabled youngsters in the zone; five counties -- including Carroll -- are in the 60 percent to 70 percent range; eight counties -- including Howard, Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore -- are in the 50 percent to 60 percent category.

Baltimore City ranks lowest, with 35.3 percent of its special-needs students in regular classrooms for 80 percent of the day.

Putting together a plan

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