By Erika Woodward
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 6, 2009)—Legislators are considering shifting more of the costs of special education to local school districts, even as counties struggle with mounting budget shortfalls that could force layoffs and cuts in services.
Under a proposal in Gov. Martin O'Malley's 2010 budget, cash-strapped counties would be forced to pay half of the cost of educating children with special needs in non-public facilities, when historically the state has shouldered 80 percent of the burden.
The proposed shift could save state government $48 million, helping to patch an anticipated $2 billion budget shortfall.
But the idea has some questioning the state's priorities, especially when most school districts have projected budget shortfalls in the millions of dollars next year.
Others worry the cut discourages counties from placing disabled students in non-public schools, which could burden teachers with increased enrollment and deny quality education to thousands of special needs children. Some special education students are placed in private schools when their public schools are not able to provide them with an appropriate education.
"The more dependent that special education needs are on the given local county, then the more inequitable the opportunities would be for special-needs students," said Allen Dyer, a Howard County Board of Education member.
He said local districts are at the mercy of falling tax revenues, their main source of income.
Howard County projects it could lose $13 million in state education aid in 2010, compared to $35 million for Prince George's County and $23 million for Baltimore.
"I think Howard County will be hurt with this, but (coming up with) more money will be difficult for all of the local boards ... It complicates our lives," he said.
Parents of special needs students worry that shifting the costs will make it even harder to find appropriate schools for their kids.
Bob Astrove said a public school was serving his son Scott "haphazardly with a therapist in a room" and no other students. He filed a civil rights complaint in 1994 in Montgomery County after a school official said the staff could not provide the services his son needed.
His son was later placed in the non-public Ivymount School, which Astrove said was instrumental in giving him a more fulfilling adulthood.
"Now (my son) reads, he can do basic math and he works," he said."He was a bundle of tears before."
But Stephen Morgan of The Arc of Baltimore said not every disabled student needs to be placed in a school like Ivymount. He said many children benefit from the social aspects of an inclusive education in public schools, which his organization firmly champions and the funding change is meant to support.
Morgan argues that if local districts have to pay more to enroll students in non-public schools, they'll be more selective. He also said it would be an incentive for public schools to maintain a staff qualified to teach disabled students.
"If it serves to incentivize schools to appropriately serve kids in public schools, then it is a good formula," he said."But we wouldn't want to see anyone's education suffer as a result of the change in funding."
Baltimore Schools CEO Andres Alonso said his district has tried to create more programs to serve special needs students. But often it is the parents who ask that their children be placed in non-public schools.
"In many instances, it is the parent who demands the out-of-district placement, even when the district believes it is providing the right program,'' he said in an email.
Someone's education will suffer if the proposed change becomes permanent, said Dorie Flynn, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities.
"It's not good for the kids, period," she said.
Flynn said parents like Astrove already "fight" to get specialized education for their children subsidized by state and local governments, including completing in-depth paperwork and attending regular meetings with school officials.
"When they get to those meetings with school systems, parents are told (the school system) can't afford it," she said, adding more parents would likely be told no to special schools should the counties be mandated to pay 50 percent of the cost.
Even those who once advocated for the funding change are unhappy with how it is executed in the bill.
Christie Marchand, the executive director of The Arc of Maryland, said she is now against the funding formula she previously championed, saying it would adversely affect the ability of public schools to provide a quality education for disabled students.
"We've long advocated that additional money go to public schools to keep (disabled kids) there," she said. That way "they can participate in all the things that kids grow up with when they go to school," like sports and birthday parties.
But Marchand wanted the money the state saved to go to the counties, not to be used to plug a hole in the budget.
Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary's, who is chair of the Education and Economic Development Subcommittee, said shifting more of the burden of special education to the counties is not a desirable choice.
"At this point it's not an option we want to take, but we're going to leave it open as an option," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.