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Bill to increase aid to disabled students pushed


Legislators from Anne Arundel, Harford and two other counties are pushing a bill that would increase state education aid for the severely disabled children of local military personnel, a measure that supporters say could provide up to $250,000 a year in badly needed funding.

Although the legislation is focused on a small group of children -- three or four in Anne Arundel, which has the largest military population -- it is part of a growing push by some state lawmakers to highlight what they consider the federal government's failure to shoulder its share of the burden for educating the children of military families.

Tomorrow, a group of state delegates and congressional representatives is scheduled to meet in Annapolis to discuss the need for more federal funds for schools in Anne Arundel. The county is facing financial difficulties and is responsible for about 400 special education students whose families are based at Fort Meade.

The meeting organized by Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel Democrat, and the funding bill written by Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel Republican, are parallel efforts sparked by an Army housing expansion that will increase the number of families at Fort Meade over the next decade.

Cadden, Leopold and others say the number of special education students is likely to increase with the addition of personnel at Fort Meade. The Army post in Odenton is attractive to families with special-needs children and is near Washington-area military hospitals. Anne Arundel schools also have an array of special education services.

"What I want is the federal government to pay for the services that they're assigning these people to our county to get," said Cadden, who co-sponsored Leopold's bill but noted that she is not interested in state funding as a long-term solution.

Under the federal impact aid program, public school systems are entitled to federal money equivalent to about half the cost of educating the children of military personnel, including special education students.

But the government has never fully funded the program. Last year, it paid out slightly more than half of the $2 billion in impact aid owed to districts.

Leopold and 13 delegates from Anne Arundel, Harford, Frederick and St. Mary's counties who co-sponsored House Bill 631 want to use state funds to fill part of the funding gap for special education students left by the federal government.

The bill targets the costs of educating severely disabled students who require more attention than public schools are equipped to give. Referred to as "nonpublic placement students," these children are sent to private facilities at an annual cost of $20,000 to $50,000.

There are only a few such students in each of the four counties although there is a larger number of learning-disabled students entitled to federal aid because of their parents' military status. Harford County, for example, has 127 learning-disabled children from families based at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

If passed, the proposal would cost the state $200,000 to $250,000, depending on the needs of the children who fall into the nonpublic placement category, Leopold said.

A longtime advocate for the disabled, Leopold said he purposely limited his proposal. "Clearly, I would have liked to have much broader assistance, but given the [state's] fiscal conditions, I thought this would be a more realistic request," he said.

Regardless of whether the state or federal tack proves most effective, Anne Arundel school officials say they are glad to see lawmakers trying to lighten the county's load. "Anything that gets us money is going to be useful," said Robert C. Leib, the school system's government liaison.

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