Ehrlich criticizes special ed in city

As state seeks overhaul, governor says program denies students' rights

July 20, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

A day after state education officials called for an overhaul of the management of Baltimore's schools, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took a verbal swipe at the beleaguered system by saying it robbed special-needs students of their constitutional rights.

On WBAL radio yesterday, Ehrlich said: "The city cannot deliver services to 15,000 special-needs kids. The most startling number here is 99 percent of 10th-graders with special needs failed reading tests. Stop the discussion right there. That is a deprivation of constitutional rights."

On Monday, the State Department of Education filed papers in U.S. District Court saying an outside takeover or a major overhaul of the school system's management is needed to fix widespread problems in special education.

The city and the state are defendants in a 21-year-old lawsuit filed by advocates for special-education students. The lawsuit centers on the system's repeated problems in providing the students with the tutoring, counseling and other services they need to succeed in classes with their nondisabled peers.

Brian D. Morris, chairman of the school board who was appointed by Ehrlich and Mayor Martin O'Malley, released a statement yesterday calling for the state to work with the city. It said: "The sudden and adversarial tone of the State's criticism runs contrary to the expressions of support made by the State for the continued progress of the Baltimore City Public School System. ... The long-term solution will result from our sustained efforts to expand the improvements already underway."

In 1997, the city agreed to give the state partial control of its schools in exchange for increased state aid in the hopes of settling two lawsuits, including the class action special-education suit filed in 1984.

But late Monday, attorneys for children with disabilities filed papers with U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis claiming that conditions for special-needs students in Baltimore are comparable now to "the earliest dark days of this lawsuit," calling the school system "a rudderless ship drifting in a perilous sea."

In Monday's court filings, the state outlined two possible options for reform: a "receivership" in which an outside authority would assume the powers of the school system's leadership, or court-ordered authority for the state to intervene in most school system operations.

The Maryland Disability Law Center, which represents the students, asked Garbis for "immediate intervention," calling receivership "a viable option." Officials outlined areas of school operation, including hiring, that should be run by an outside entity, but they had reservations about the state's role.

A court brief filed by the center said the state has "clearly been aware of the magnitude of the issues surrounding the provision of special education and related services in Baltimore City but has been unwilling to exercise its authority, or fulfill its obligations, under federal and state law until very recently."

State school board members yesterday defended an expanded role for the state.

"This is a court case that's gone on for 21 years," said board member Dunbar Brooks. "... We now have an angry federal judge who says, `Get it right,' and that's our responsibility."

Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Jill Rosen contributed to this article.

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