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From Maryland: Stop Ignoring Our Special Education Students
Every year, barely one in three special-education students passes each of the three Maryland High School Assessments (HSAs) now required for graduation, according to the Maryland Report Card web site. In contrast, close to three-fourths of on-level students pass. How is this ok? In Washington DC, kids dont get books
Editorial: Stop ignoring our special-ed students
Department deserves funds withheld by school system, Silver Chips Online, 10/7/2005


Every year, barely one in three special-education students passes each of the three Maryland High School Assessments (HSAs) now required for graduation, according to the Maryland Report Card web site.

In contrast, close to three-fourths of on-level students pass.
Last year, instead of recognizing that many special-education students were going to fail to graduate and increasing funding to prevent this, MCPS policy-makers and Superintendent Jerry Weast denied the county's Special Education Department $5.4 million that was allotted to it.

This denial would have been misguided if passing the HSAs was not a graduation requirement. But at a time when unreasonable testing standards are a reality for all high-school students, MCPS's decision to deprive county Special Education departments of much-needed money is simply callous.

Lost dollars

The $5.4 million figure is divided into two categories: unexpected additional special education revenue and budgeted funds that were not spent.

The first includes $726,000 in additional funding from the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents, $523,000 of reimbursements for private school tuition of special-education students and $618,000 due to higher-than-expected funding from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The second is comprised of $3.2 million MCPS budgeted but did not spend on special-education students who were referred to private schools and $1.9 million budgeted and not spent on replacing retiring staff and covering for absent staff members.

An additional $1.6 million spent on contracting staff positions to private companies puts the total amount of funds that were allocated to special education but not spent at $5.4 million. This funding debacle was detailed in June 14 and July 27 Board of Education minutes.

Limited resources

The loss of this money was more painful to other county schools than to Blair, because according to Principal Phillip Gainous, Blair's Special Education Department has more resources than those of most other schools.

Last year, a large and vocal group of Blair parents and teachers, including Gainous himself, lobbied for and received extra funds to address concerns about the lack of special-education staff.

The county met their demands, but, as Gainous said, the special education funding "pot" is limited. He and others were informed that the "extra" money Blair struggled to acquire came straight out of other county high schools' special education departments. "If we had that extra $5 million, we might have not needed to rob Peter to pay Paul," he said.

Funding shortfalls

Jerry Weast and MCPS must look for every opportunity to increase special education funding in order to prepare special-education students for the HSAs instead of denying the departments money.

This school year, according to MCPS, the county's special education budget only increased 7.2 percent compared to a rise of 13.2 percent the year before. Yet in this year's annual budget address, Weast said that "improving special education achievement continues to be our priority."

Adding $5.4 million to this year's budget would have demonstrated how much of a concern special education is to Weast and MCPS, in addition to making the budget increase a more respectable 9.1 percent.

Instead of distorting MCPS's efforts on behalf of special-education students, Weast must admit that MCPS denied the Special Education Department much-needed funding and commit to increasing funding more next year.

Special-education students require more money than other students to learn the same material. Special education resource teacher Lisa Davisson emphasized that many of her students are struggling to read at even an elementary school level.

Disabled students already have enough difficulty passing HSAs for subjects in which they have learning disabilities without trying to understand material in a classroom with a 20:1 student teacher ratio, which Davisson says occurs regularly in Blair special-education classes.

These students urgently need smaller class sizes so that teachers can spend more time providing individual attention. The county's special education departments need more staff and technology to enable students to achieve and to prepare them to take the HSAs.

Davisson and Gainous are having difficulty comprehending why HSAs are required for special education students. Davisson called HSAs "flat out discrimination," and Gainous declared that the Special Education Department "absolutely should have extra funding" to help prepare struggling students for the HSAs.

Our responsibility

It is not MCPS's fault that special-education students must pass the HSAs to graduate, but it is the county's responsibility to provide the resources necessary to even begin to solve the problem.

Instead, money has been allocated to less urgent endeavors. Bob Astrove, budget analyst and parent of two MCPS special-education students, found that $300,000 of the allotted special education funds may have gone to pay for palm pilots for elementary school teachers who wanted to have information on their students close at hand.

It is our duty to make sure all students, regardless of disability, receive a quality education and the tools necessary for success.
These are high-school students who cannot read, write or do basic arithmetic due to disabilities and who could fail to graduate from high school under the new HSA requirement.

Such wasteful spending is an affront to the county's special-education students. These resources should go toward preparing our students for the tests they need to pass in order to graduate. These resources cannot be withheld.

Our county's disgraceful treatment of special-education students is an embarassing stain on our school system's stellar reputation. Weast and MCPS must be committed to helping special-education students succeed, and realize that we owe them the funding they are due.

U.S. Supreme Court hears MCPS lawsuit
Schaffer lawsuit to determine how special education is administered in Montgomery County

Adam Yalowitz, Page Editor


The U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments yesterday in "Schaffer v. Weast," a dispute between MCPS and a family advocating for a student's special education rights.

The case questions whether parents or the school system bears the burden of proof in establishing that an Individual Education Program (IEP) is adequate. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school systems are required to create IEPs to ensure that students with disabilities receive sufficient resources from schools.

Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer were not satisfied with the IEP that MCPS developed for their son, Brian, in 1998. They placed him in a private school, the McLean School of Maryland, and filed to receive reimbursement from MCPS for the private school tuition.

The Schaffers paid for private testing that showed that Brian Schaffer should be in classes with six or seven students, said Jocelyn Schaffer. They said MCPS failed to provide an appropriate public education mandated by the IDEA. Under MCPS's proposed IEP, Brian Schaffer would have been in classes with over 20 students and a trained special educator, according to the Schaffers. They believe the school system has the responsibility to prove that an IEP is adequate.

MCPS maintained that special education litigation should follow legal precedent, where the plaintiff bears the burden of proof. This is part of the "traditional rules of the court," according to Brian Edwards, communications director for MCPS.

Plaintiffs have the burden of proof in most legal cases, but there are exceptions, said Miguel Méndez, a professor at Stanford University Law School. "The general rule is that the plaintiff bears the proof," said Méndez. "The courts can change this. When defendants have more evidence, sometimes courts put burden of proof on them."

Making the plan

In Montgomery County, IEPs are developed in conjunction with parents, said Edwards, who believes that MCPS provides excellent special education services. "MCPS has extremely dedicated special education teachers and staff," said Edwards. "We are known for our excellent special education programs."

Some parents of special-education students disagree with Edwards's analysis. Bob Astrove, a parent of two MCPS special-education students and a longtime education activist, said MCPS should have to prove that IEPs are sufficient. "They're the ones proposing the plans; they're the ones who implement the services. The school system has all the experts; they control all of the research," said Astrove. "It's not a level playing field."

According to Astrove, MCPS uses litigation as a way to avoid improving special education services. "[MCPS] would rather litigate than educate," he said.

Diana Lautenberger, the mother of a special-education student, agrees that MCPS uses legal power to avoid enriching IEPs. Lautenberger is unsatisfied with how MCPS has administered special education programs for her son. "[MCPS] didn't want him; that was very clear. They made it very difficult for him. They didn't give him the support he needed to be successful. He began to deteriorate," said Lautenberger. "When I said, `You're not meeting my son's needs,' they said, `Prove it.'"

Most of the parents whom Board of Education member Sharon Cox has met have been satisfied with their children's special education programs. "I have spoken with many parents who say that their experiences with the school system have been terrific," said Cox. "MCPS makes every effort to provide the services that a child needs."

Blair's 250 special education students are among the 17,000 of MCPS's 140,000 students who need such programs.

Meetings to design IEPs involve school psychologists, teachers, speech pathologists, counselors, parents and the student being evaluated, said Lisa Davisson, Blair's special education resource teacher. She added that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Schaffer would make it harder to help design IEPs and administer special education programs because of extra legal precautions.

When school officials decide MCPS cannot provide quality services to a special-education student, the county pays for the student to attend a private school. Currently, 650 MCPS special-education students are in private schools, costing the county $32 million per year, according to Edwards. This expenditure constitutes over 10 percent of MCPS's $310.7 million special education budget. At Blair, Davisson annually refers about one student for placement at another public school or in a private school.

In Schaffer's case, a decision was not reached in an IEP meeting to place Schaffer in a private school. Schaffer's parents decided on their own to enroll their son in a private school, and they sued MCPS for reimbursement, said Jocelyn Schaffer.

In 1998, a judge ruled in favor of MCPS, according to Wrightslaw, a special education research group. Since then, a series of appeals from both the Schaffers and MCPS led the case through the U.S. Court of Appeals, which decided in favor of MCPS, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Schaffer v. Weast

US Supreme Court Will Look at Maryland Special Education Case and Burden of Proof
Special-Ed Students Still Wait For Books Teachers in D.C. Forced to Improvise
By V. Dion Haynes, Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 7, 2005; B01


After six weeks of classes, many special education students in D.C. public schools still are without math and reading textbooks, according to several teachers.

All 62,000 students in the school system were supposed to get new textbooks in math and reading, based on Superintendent Clifford B. Janey's decision to overhaul the learning standards and curriculum for those subjects at every grade level.

The books arrived on time for most general education students. But six special education teachers at different schools across the city said their students, who are taught in separate classrooms, still do not have the material. The teachers said they were told that administrators failed to order the same textbooks for special education students in enough time to assure a prompt delivery.

Chief Academic Officer Hilda L. Ortiz, whose staff oversaw textbook purchases, and Wilma F. Bonner, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, denied that a significant number of students were without books. They said that textbooks were ordered based on a school's total enrollment and that there was not a separate order for special education students.

"At least 90 percent of the special education students have their materials for reading and math," Bonner said. "All the books have been sent to the schools."

The teachers without books said they have been improvising with their own worksheets or photocopying pages from colleagues' textbooks. Some teachers shrugged off the problem, saying it happens every time a switch in books is made, but others said they were outraged that students with disabilities were being shortchanged.

"To deny the lowest-performing population the same resources that the general education students have is a disservice, and it's pretty disheartening," said a teacher whose students include learning-disabled and emotionally disturbed third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. Like the other teachers interviewed, she spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns that her comments would get her into trouble.

Teachers said the lack of textbooks also will affect how their students perform next spring on a new exam based on the new learning standards and curriculum. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, most special education students must take the same exam as their peers in regular classes, and schools are judged based on the yearly progress of both sets of students.

"Our principal spoke with an assistant superintendent and said we will probably not make" adequate yearly progress, one teacher said. "We're already starting behind the eight ball: Our kids are two grades behind."

George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said he had received some calls from special education teachers complaining about the lack of textbooks. He said he sent an automated phone message to teachers yesterday seeking feedback on how widespread the problem was.

"Whenever teachers don't receive materials they need in a timely manner, it affects how successfully they will be able to implement the new standards," Parker said.

Board of Education member Victor Reinoso (District 2), a member of the board's ad hoc committee on special education, expressed concern when told about the teachers' complaints and called on the administration to investigate.

"The special education kids deserve access to the same material as other kids," Reinoso said. "If you don't have textbooks, it's difficult to argue you're making available a comprehensive education program to them."

The quality of special education services offered at D.C. public schools has been a long-standing problem. Many parents of special-needs students, dissatisfied with those services, have successfully sued to have their children placed in costly private facilities at the city's expense.

Dawn Henderson, whose eighth-grade daughter is in a special education class at Hardy Middle School in Northwest Washington, said her daughter is using last year's math textbook. "I think it's terrible they're not helping the kids," she said.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation