Special ed scramble

July 22, 2005

THE MARYLAND State Department of Education wants to take over Baltimore's special education program or assist a federal court-appointed receiver in overhauling it. Is this the same department of education that has been a defendant, along with the city school system, in the long-standing case? The same department of education that, several months ago, argued that the city school system was making sufficient progress in serving special education students that the case should be dismissed?

Little wonder that city school officials say the state is overreaching. They see the state's proposal to manage special education as an unwelcome camel's nose under the tent, possibly leading to a broader state takeover of the city's schools.

Lawyers for the special ed students who are plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit have another idea. They call for an independent managing authority, questioning whether either state or city school officials can properly handle special ed. That may be a necessary, temporary solution. But no plan or effort to improve special education is likely to work unless and until all sides can work together effectively.

More than 15,000 of Baltimore's 88,000 students have a physical, emotional or learning disability that requires special or enhanced attention. That's 17 percent of the city's school population, compared with about 11.5 percent nationally.

The two-decades-old lawsuit alleges that the school system fails to accurately diagnose disabilities and that it fails to provide adequate and appropriate services to special ed students. As part of the lawsuit, the city school system is supposed to achieve specific measurable outcomes for disabled students, including improvements in their graduation, dropout and suspension rates, and support more of them in general education classes.

The latest legal flap stems from interruptions in services - including counseling, tutoring and speech therapy - that disabled students need in order to function in classes with nondisabled students. Even the plaintiffs acknowledge that the recent financial crisis threw the system out of whack, causing numerous teacher vacancies, oversized classes and central administration layoffs that left huge gaps in the system's ability to provide consistent support services.

But the state insists that the issue goes beyond money and really centers on mismanagement. As outlined in court papers this week, the state would provide new, supervisory managers who would give daily direction, technical assistance and oversight to incumbent city managers in areas such as student services and guidance, human resources, transportation and special education finance. The oversight would last three years and cost about $1.5 million a year. Alternatively, the state would support a court-appointed receiver.

Calling for a receiver - or even a takeover - when the state has long had oversight responsibility for the city schools' special ed program is overkill and smacks of gubernatorial politics. The parties have two more chances to address these issues in legal papers. We hope that the continuing conversation in court will be more in the spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation.

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