Help more disabled students

April 28, 2006

The decision by Baltimore school officials to stop fighting a federal court order requiring the state to take more responsibility for special education in the city is a triumph of good sense over pride. While U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis' order was flawed, the chances that it would be overturned by a federal appeals court were pretty slim. Dropping the appeal should pave the way for city and state educators to come together to help disabled students.

City school officials were rightly angered last year when Judge Garbis, as part of a long-standing lawsuit on behalf of Baltimore's disabled students and their families, ordered the Maryland State Department of Education - a co-defendant in the case - to install super-managers over every city school department that dealt with special education, from finances and transportation to human resources. Judge Garbis also ordered city school officials to restore 90,000 hours of services that disabled students were entitled to but did not receive last year.

While students unquestionably deserve the missed services, there is a shortage of providers, particularly among speech and language therapists, mental health counselors and social service workers. Thus, by their own count, city officials have provided less than 20 percent of the compensatory services and they are also behind in providing services this year. Though many districts are affected by the shortage of providers, Baltimore's inability to offer more makeup services certainly weakened the school board's appeal.

Dropping the case at this point may save some money in fees to appellate lawyers, but the school system is still on the hook for the salaries and other administrative costs of the state managers - budgeted at $1.3 million for the next school year - as well as ongoing costs of the lawsuit that the city school system is obligated to pay.

The hope is that the real benefit in not pursuing the appeal will be a decrease in the rancor between city and state school officials that has consistently marred efforts to help disabled students.

City and state officials insist that they want disabled students to receive services in a timely manner. They need to put aside past grievances and make that happen.

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