With the unusual help of a U.S. District Court appellate judge, the Baltimore public schools will take a major step toward ending a 16-year-old lawsuit over special education Monday.
In the settlement, the school system has agreed to try to narrow the achievement gap between special education students and other students, increase the percentage of disabled students who graduate and integrate more of them into regular classrooms.
"By itself, it is a piece of paper," said Steve Ney, legal director of the Maryland Disabilities Law Center. "If the city implements this can you imagine seeing more kids graduating with a diploma more kids educated with their nondisabled peers in a regular classroom."
The goals, which will be presented to U.S. District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis next week, were agreed to during an unusual process that began with Garbis asking a federal appellate judge from the District of Columbia to intervene in bringing together the school system and lawyers representing special education students.
Three outside education experts from across the country were brought in to come up with the goals. The appellate judge, David S. Tatel, then mediated.
The process could become a national model for resolving similar special education lawsuits in other cities, said Amy Totenberg, who was recently appointed special master in the case by Garbis.
If the school system meets the goals in three years, Garbis could find the system in compliance with federal law and end the long-running war over special education that caused disruption to the school system in the mid-1990s. The school system at times ignored Garbis' orders, its superintendent was held in contempt of court, and it paid millions of dollars in fines and legal fees.
By 1996, the federal court was micro-managing services for special education. When the school system failed to give children the instruction or services they were supposed to get, the schools were required to compensate them with computers, merchandise, summer camp fees and gift certificates.
Since a partial state takeover of the city schools and the appointment of a new school board, said Abbey Hairston, an attorney for the school system, there has been a more serious commitment to improving education for students, from those with problems learning to read to those who are severely mentally impaired.
She said schools chief Robert Booker and the school board have been intent on doing what was needed to end the court battles.
During the negotiations, board members Edward J. Brody, Michele Noel and J. Tyson Tildon went to Washington and joined in hours of discussion. "They asked hard questions, and they didn't want to make commitments they couldn't follow through on," Tatel said.
Hairston said the school system has concerns about meeting all of the percentage goals in the agreement, although there is no disagreement on the goals.
"We entered into a novel approach to resolve a long-standing problem. We are cautiously optimistic about how it will turn out. We can't say we are 100 percent sure that we will achieve all of these outcomes," Hairston said.
Charvette Barfield, mother of two special education students, said she is hopeful that the agreement will result in a change in services for city students. "I would like to see if it works this time," she said. "I would like to see if the quality of services changes."
She said some students graduate from high school reading on a third-grade level and believe they can go to college. Instead, she said, they are stuck in remedial programs. She hopes that one effect of the agreement will be to ensure that special education students get the help they need to make the transition from high school to work or higher education.