Fixing special ed

July 28, 2005

THE MARYLAND State Department of Education is champing at the bit to assert more control over special education in Baltimore's public schools. The department has retreated a bit from a suggestion that a court-ordered receiver should take over the schools. But its preferred solution of superimposing a new layer of managers over the existing management team for special ed - with city schools paying for the privilege and the court resolving disputes - doesn't cut it, either. Rather than asserting leadership, the state has forfeited it.

Special education in Baltimore public schools needs an overhaul. The latest skirmish involves getting services to disabled students that will enable them to attend classes with their nondisabled peers. But who should fix the problem and how?

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is making good on a suggestion she made in court recently - and that the department of education detailed in legal papers last week - that the state should take a more aggressive role in managing Baltimore's special ed program. The department proposes a "hands-on intensive management intervention plan" that would put a lead administrator and eight super-managers in charge of targeted city school departments dealing with all aspects of special education, including transportation, finances, services and instruction, for three years. Adding insult to injury, the state wants the city schools to pick up the estimated $1.4 million annual cost of the plan. What sense does that make for a system that has been chronically underfunded and is trying to eliminate a $58 million deficit?

For a department that has had oversight responsibility of Baltimore's special ed program for years, the state's proposal seems - at once - too much, too little and too late. Perhaps most telling, the department admits to an "erosion of trust" between it and the city school system and that past attempts to cooperate have not resulted in lasting accomplishments.

All the more reason to be skeptical of the state's latest proposal. It will be up to U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis to make a final determination - possibly before school starts next month - but since neither the state nor the city schools have clean hands, an independent managing authority offers more promise for getting disabled students the help they need.

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