Paying for special ed

September 14, 2005

The struggles continue between the state Department of Education and the Baltimore school system over who can best provide and pay for special education services for the city's disabled students. City school officials plan to appeal last month's federal court order that gives responsibility for administering and overhauling the city's special education program to the state. In the meantime, a team of state-appointed managers is almost in place, although it's too soon to know what changes they will make or how effective the changes will be. It may also be too soon to know how much the changes will cost. But the question of who's picking up the tab should be reconsidered.

By their estimate, city school officials owe thousands of hours of makeup services - including speech and language therapy, physical therapy and counseling - to many of the city's 15,000 special ed students. These services were not provided during the last school year or during the recent summer school session. But they are key elements of the long-standing lawsuit that seeks better results for disabled students. Last month, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis finally determined that the state should play a much larger role in ensuring that those and other services are delivered, citing prolonged frustration with the city's seeming inability to do so.

That's where the new managers, who have been pulled from other school systems around the state, come in. They are supposed to see that these services - and all aspects of special education, from transportation to instruction - are overhauled. Judge Garbis agreed with the state that the city school system should pay the tab, which state officials insist will total about $1.4 million - mainly for salaries - coming from federal funds earmarked for special ed that the city has not used. State officials also think that anticipated federal and state funds should cover any additional costs.

But some city school managers estimate that the administrative costs alone could reach $4 million. They also calculate that the makeup services for which they are responsible could cost $10 million. Even if that calculation is excessive, city educators rightly argue that any additional special ed costs could impose a significant burden on a system that has obligations to all students and is aiming to eliminate a $58 million deficit by the end of the school year. Given the financial uncertainties, city and state educators must work out - with court approval - a realistic way to pay for special ed services.

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