When Howard County Council member Charles C. Feaga said last month that the county schools are spending too much money on special education, he jumped straight into a hot debate over the needs of the many vs. the extraordinary needs of a few.

The few are students like Tyler Carr, a gregarious eighth-grader with Down syndrome, whose struggles with math and reading mean he needs individual help for several hours each school day.

The many are his eighth-grade classmates at Clarksville Middle School and their parents.

The county's schools are considered among the best in the state at educating children with special needs. But critics question the escalating costs of this -- though not often as publicly as Feaga for fear of being considered insensitive to children with disabilities.

That tension was felt in the furious response to Feaga's comments: letters to the editor, calls to his office and a bitterness that remains among parents of disabled children.

"I took quite a beating in the papers, but I think there are a lot of people out there who quietly support what I had to say," Feaga says.

Feaga, a 5th District Republican, may have stumbled into the issue, but it's one that has been around since the Howard system began moving five years ago to instruct children with disabilities in the regular classrooms as much as possible, in line with federal mandates.

The Howard schools are spending about $25.5 million on special-education services this school year, about 10.6 percent of the school system's $240 million budget.

The special-education budget has increased 13.2 percent over the past two years, compared with a 10.9 percent increase in the overall budget.

About 10.6 percent of Howard students (slightly more than 4,200) receive special-education services, a percentage similar to those in other area school systems.

Feaga -- who suggested that special-education services ought to be reduced because they're attracting too many children with disabilities to the county -- is not the only one to worry about special education and its effect on the rising cost of education in Howard.

In the past two years, the school board has cut almost $300,000 from proposed special-education funding increases.

And some parents privately are becoming more critical of keeping such children in neighborhood schools, fearing an increase in disruptions to instruction.

"It may work for some children to be mainstreamed into regular classrooms, but they need to do a better job of keeping kids who don't belong out," says one Atholton High School parent, who refuses to be named for fear of offending parents of disabled children and hurting her family's business.

"There are too many special-education kids with behavior problems who get away with stuff, and some of the classes get so overwhelmed that my kids don't end up learning as much as they should," this parent says.

Benefits for all

Yet for Tyler, as well as for the vast majority of Howard students who receive some type of special-education services in their neighborhood schools, the opportunity to participate in regular classes has done wonders for him.

"Tyler works hard, has lots of friends and is learning a lot," says his mother, Kathy Carr, a third-grade teacher in the Howard schools. "He mixes well with the other students, and the extra support he gets for math and reading [is] paying off."

Tyler's instructional program illustrates how the Howard schools are adhering to federal law requiring students with disabilities to be taught in the "least restrictive environment."

The days of students with disabilities being tucked away in separate classrooms are past for all but those with the most severe disabilities.

State, federal laws

In the past few years, a series of complex state and federal regulations and court decisions have generally interpreted the law to mean that disabled children are to receive services in their neighborhood schools and to be included in regular classrooms whenever possible. This is known in special-education jargon as "inclusion."

The Howard students who receive special-education services in neighborhood schools are mainstreamed in regular classes to varying degrees, depending upon the nature of their disabilities.

About 75 students with multiple disabilities attend a separate program at Cedar Lane School, and about 85 are enrolled in special-education programs at private schools, paid from public funds.

"The research is overwhelming that when children with special needs are included in regular classrooms with appropriate staffing and training, it's a wonderful education experience for all of the children," says Beverly Strong, who serves as the special-education liaison for the University of Maryland College Park's office of laboratory experiences. She places students in special-education teacher-training positions.

For example, in a morning kindergarten class at Clemens Crossing Elementary School, Solomon Gurwitz, a talkative 6-year-old, shares a table with 5-year-old Matt Dotson, who uses a wheelchair and tends to be more quiet.

Learning diversity

"Solomon loves sitting at the table with Matt -- he talks all day to him," says Solomon's mother, Stephanie Gurwitz. "There's proper staffing in the classroom, so Matt seems to have the support he needs, and I can see Solomon and the other students learning a lot about sensitivity and diversity."

The problem with inclusion, says Strong, can be that "when it's done wrong -- either because there isn't enough support in the classroom or because there are too many children with special needs assigned to a class -- then it ends up hurting everyone."

All too often, such situations emerge in the Howard schools, say parents, teachers and school officials.

One of the chief complaints of teachers is that there is too little training and too few special-education teachers and assistants.

A 1993 plan that looked at the county's special-education needs over the next decade called for far more staff and money than the Howard schools have set aside. Comprehensive surveys of Howard's elementary- and middle-school teachers over the past two years have found the lack of special-education support and training regularly listed as a concern.

"The problem is that funding for students receiving special-education services is the same funding that is needed to pay for the increasing enrollment of the system," says Sandra Marx, who oversees the county's special-education services. "In a time of competing priorities, it's been hard to do everything we want -- everything we need -- to help support our students with special needs."

Too many in classroom

A less common complaint, but one that's still heard with some regularity, is that too many students with disabilities are put in the same classroom.

Under the philosophy of inclusion, the number of students with disabilities in any regular classroom should roughly match their proportion in a school's enrollment -- about 10 percent.

But when the county's middle school evaluation committee surveyed Howard's middle schools last year, it found some classes with 26 students that had as many as a dozen students with disabilities.

"That's not inclusion -- that's making a class into a special-needs class as far as I'm concerned," says Tracey Eberhardt, whose second-grade daughter is mentally disabled and who is chairwoman of the education committee of the county's Association of Retarded Citizens. "When schools do something like that, it hurts everyone -- the children with special needs and the nondisabled kids, too."

Marx agrees that classes with a large number of children with disabilities are not the way inclusion is supposed to work.

"When we hear of situations like that, we try to help the schools take another look at the way they've scheduled students," Marx says. "We don't dictate, but we would tell them that that's not the way to go. No one benefits."

Parents pull children

These situations often can affect other classes in the same schools.

In Howard schools, parents can demand that their children be placed in gifted-and-talented classes -- even if their children don't qualify academically -- and some do that to avoid classes with many students with disabilities. That ends up diluting and slowing down the gifted classes, teachers say.

"I know my son isn't ready for the gifted classes, but I don't want him stuck in classes where half the students are special ed," says the mother of one Columbia eighth-grader who asked not to be identified. "There are just too many disruptions in the regular classes."

Even though both special-education advocates and critics agree that the process of including children with disabilities in regular classrooms has created problems, they differ sharply on the solutions.

Some say the Howard schools should set aside more money and staff to fully support the process of inclusion, while others suggest the county needs to step back and reconsider the idea of placing so many disabled children in regular classrooms.

"If the goal is to prepare our daughter for the rest of her life, then we need to start teaching her that now, with the people she'll be working with someday, rather than keeping her out away from everyone until she turns 21 and then throwing her out into the real world," says Carol Dean, whose eighth-grade daughter is developmentally delayed.

Adds her husband, Richard: "The county seems to have a choice: Pay money now to do everything possible to help children with special needs or end up paying a lot more later on when these kids turn 21."

But Feaga, who says that the angry letters and phone calls have not changed his views, points out that there are limits to what can be done and to how much children with disabilities can be taught.

"If kids are being disruptive, do they belong in the regular classroom hurting instruction for everyone?" Feaga asks. "For a lot of kids, inclusion is the right thing, but I think there needs to be a limit to who is placed in the classroom and the services that are available. It's a question of how far the county's tax dollars can go."

For some, the entire debate is irrelevant. The law requires students with disabilities to be taught in regular classrooms, so that's what the schools have to do. The key will be finding the money to make it work.

"Let's quit talking about whether we have [inclusion] or we don't have it," says Karen Dunlop, president of the Howard County Education Association. "Federal law isn't going to change, so now we have to make it work everywhere as well as it's working some places."

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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