Report faults state's handling of special education programs


Maryland education officials say they will modify how the state supervises local special education programs, in the wake of a federal report highlighting problems in a number of areas.

"This is not something that we're going to draw battle lines over," said Joseph L. Shilling, state school superintendent, who released the federal monitoring report yesterday.

The long-awaited report takes a detailed look at how well the state oversees special education programs that served more than 88,000 disabled students last year and cost $455 million.

It gives the state 60 days to come up with a plan to correct each of the items listed in the 50-page report.

State officials say they will not contest the detailed critique -- although the state's challenge of a similar draft report based on a 1986 inspection led to a pair of lawsuits that are still pending.

Advocates for the disabled, meanwhile, say the new report confirms flaws they already suspected in how the state oversees local compliance with federal rules governing special education.

"I don't view this as a positive report," said Leslie Seid Margolis of the Maryland Disability Law Center. "It identifies a number of serious problems."

The new study was based in part on a detailed look at the records of 76 students and visits to nine agencies, including school districts in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Carroll County.

In all, federal monitors cited problems in five of the 21 compliance areas they examined. They found that:

* Schools around the state sometimes put handicapped students in separate centers or classrooms without adequately justifying those placements or fully considering the alternatives.

* Schools in many cases need to include more detail in the educational program drawn up for each special education student and put that plan into effect as soon as possible.

* The state should keep closer tabs on whether local school districts comply with all of the procedural safeguards for parents.

* Schools should move faster to resolve complaints involving special education students.

* The state should make sure that services are available from the schools year-round when necessary.

State and federal officials were reluctant to rate Maryland's overall performance. But both insisted that the state's problems are typical of those in other states.

"It could be characterized as a state that has some outstanding practices . . . and some areas of concern," said Judy A. Schrag, director of the federal Office of Special Education Programs.

In fact, federal monitors went out of their way to praise some of this state's efforts in special education, including its work in training parents and in helping handicapped students move into the workplace.

Some advocacy groups, however, say the report simply points out long- standing problems in Maryland's oversight of special education.

Mark Mlawer, executive director of the Maryland Coalition for Integrated Education, said local school districts have been allowed to violate federal rules requiring handicapped students to be placed in the least restrictive setting.

"Their rights to be educated alongside students who do not have disabilities have been virtually ignored," said Mlawer.

State officials, meanwhile, say they will move quickly to address those problems.

Richard Steinke, the state's assistant superintendent for special education, said officials already have reviewed the findings with officials in each of the systems that were studied.

"We think the state system for inspecting for complete compliance could be improved," he said.

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