Disabling students?

December 26, 2004

AFTER 20 years of dealing with a lawsuit that tries to improve education for students with disabilities, the Baltimore school system tried to call it quits. About a year ago, the school system asked the federal judge hearing the case to find that it has pretty much done what it is supposed to do and, therefore, should be released from the court's jurisdiction. In a recent legal memo, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis responded in fairly sharp tones: No way.

Judge Garbis is right to hold onto the case. Judicial oversight is probably essential to protect the rights of special-education students. That's especially true at a time when the school system is still struggling to come out from under a $58 million deficit. In general, school officials think they are doing well putting the system back on sound financial footing. But Judge Garbis was very clear that the school system's budget woes, together with what he viewed as persistent management failures, make the schools hard-pressed to meet the needs of general education students, much less those with special needs.

While acknowledging that the schools have started to comply with their court-imposed obligations to students with disabilities, Judge Garbis expressed concern that the system's "severe financial crisis" threatens to erode some of that progress. He cited personnel cuts that have compromised students' physical safety and impaired the system's ability to track and improve rates of attendance and school completion. He was equally worried about the system's ongoing management difficulties, including its ability to effectively track and fill teacher vacancies and to apply in a timely manner for available federal funds to provide more staff support for special-education students.

Characterizing the system's capability as an education provider to be "in extremis," Judge Garbis asked for a special report to determine whether the school system has really been able to deal with the huge deficit without adversely affecting classroom instruction for the disabled, in addition to other ongoing progress reports.

City school officials had cited increased cooperation and monitoring by the Maryland State Department of Education to help justify getting out from under the court's thumb. The state first supported the city's idea, then changed its mind. Judge Garbis acknowledged some tension between the two entities - notably, the state's inadequate funding of the city school system (the subject of another lawsuit) - but he's pushing them to improve their working relationship, and both sides insist that they will try to work together more effectively. In the meantime, the judge will be looking over their shoulders to ensure better results for special-education students.

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