Special ed urgency

August 14, 2005

IN A RUSH to remedy persistent failures by the Baltimore city school system, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis has embraced a faulty plan by the state to take over certain administrative and operational functions related to special education. It's regrettable and disappointing that frustration and expediency seem to have pushed Judge Garbis to this decision, issued late Friday afternoon.

The state, which bears considerable blame for the mess special education is in, now has to prove that it is not engaged in a power grab, but that it can manage those functions responsibly - and cooperatively - to serve disabled students better. If not, Judge Garbis should step in again.

The 21-year-old lawsuit generally faults the school system for failing to accurately diagnose disabilities and failing to provide adequate and appropriate services to special ed students. To correct the situation, the city school system is supposed to achieve measurable outcomes for disabled students, including improvements in their graduation, dropout and suspension rates, and support more of them in general education classes.

But since March, the court has heard renewed complaints that the system has failed to provide basic services, such as counseling, tutoring and speech therapy, to more than half of its 15,000 disabled students. City school officials had to admit in court recently that only a few hundred of the 8,000 students who were to be provided with compensatory services this summer had received them.

While city school officials have not adequately addressed such failures, the state, a longtime co-defendant in the lawsuit brought by the families of disabled students, has also not exercised proper oversight responsibility. It will have to show that its new court-sanctioned authority to ride herd over the city schools will substantially improve services.

Under the state's plan, now adopted by the court, nine managers will be provided by the state to give technical assistance, supervision and direction to incumbent city managers in areas such as student services and guidance, human resources, transportation, special education finance and instruction. Because the state is providing these super-managers, it should pay for the estimated $1.4 million cost.

While giving the state authority to fix special education in the city, Judge Garbis wants both sides to work together, and wants city officials to retain as much control as possible to enable them to comply with the law. He also ordered the state to work with a consultant suggested by those who brought the lawsuit, putting another much-needed neutral party in the mix.

Having prevailed in its bid to fix special ed in the city, the state now has to deliver.

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