Where's the plan?

March 19, 2006

It's sometimes hard to know which side to hold responsible in the ongoing battle between the Maryland State Department of Education and the Baltimore school system over the delivery of services to special education students. There is plenty of blame to go around, but pointing fingers is, ultimately, not a useful exercise.

The latest flap erupted last week when state education officials publicly chided city school administrators for completing only 3,900 hours out of 90,000 hours in makeup services that they have been ordered to provide by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis as part of a long-standing lawsuit on behalf of Baltimore's disabled students. The services are owed to nearly 9,000 of the city's 15,000 special ed students. More than 60 percent of those students are owed 10 hours or less of services, about 25 percent are owed between 10 and 20 hours and about 10 percent are owed more than 20 hours.

In a very real sense, the idea of making up services to disabled students is absurd, because they have suffered a tremendous loss by not receiving help in a timely manner. Thus, while special ed students certainly deserve adequate compensation, the court's insistence on a virtually hour-for-hour match between lost and makeup services may be unrealistic. A better approach might have been to tailor compensatory services to individual student results, regardless of hours - or to let the school system engage an outside contractor to provide the services.

As things stand, city school officials are scrambling to find expert providers in such areas as speech and language therapy, mental health counseling and social services for students and their families. There are nationwide shortages in some of these areas, and Baltimore school administrators are having to secure help on a piecemeal basis whenever specialists are available.

Meanwhile, state and city education officials have had some disagreements about how to pay for the services. But that should not stop state educators from continuing to recommend expert providers and, if necessary, helping persuade them to deliver the appropriate services.

Even as state-appointed managers are overseeing the city's special ed program, both sides should sit down together and find a way to provide the makeup services for last year - and tackle the backlog of services that threatens an even worse dilemma this year. This should not be about pointing fingers in public, but helping vulnerable kids.

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