State Takes Over Special Education in Baltimore

Published October 1, 2005

A 20-year-old lawsuit against Baltimore City’s failing special education system ended in July when a federal judge ordered the state to assume control of the program.

Attorneys representing Baltimore children with disabilities argued 10,000 special needs students in Baltimore City were not receiving adequate services, such as appropriate classroom instruction and physical and speech therapy. The state board of education is expected to oversee the school district’s special education programs for the next three years.

Union Wanted Access to Funds

Attorneys at the Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC), who have fought the Baltimore school system for better special education services since 1984, call the case “an ongoing systemic reform lawsuit.”

Specific claims in the case considered this year included understaffing, lack of materials and resources, and a lapse in services. The July decision met opposition from the Baltimore Teachers Union and the city school system, among others. The school district and MDLC had presented alternatives to the federal judge.

“Rather than a state takeover, we’d have preferred better access to existing funds,” said Marietta A. English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. “Through our in-house committee, we are now in the process of trying to recommend improvements to the whole special education program. The jury is out on whether state officials will choose to work with us. We know our role–to continue working to get resources to the teachers and children.”

State Moved Quickly

For others, the decision did not come soon enough. Brian Cox, executive director of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council, a public policy and advocacy organization, said, “It is inexcusable that this problem has continued for so long and special education students have not received the services they are rightfully due.”

Dr. Nancy Grasmick, Maryland state schools superintendent, vowed to help the 10,000 Baltimore students needing special education services. In a news conference August 22, she noted her appointed leader of the effort, Dr. Henry Fogle–a nationally recognized expert in special education instruction and management issues and assistant superintendent in Carroll County, Maryland–would be “moving to the city” himself to facilitate his work to meet those students’ needs.

The state, using $1.4 million of federal money that went unused for two years, was to appoint eight managers from school systems statewide to manage and evaluate the city’s special education program. Five managers were in place on August 29, the first day of school.

Alison Lake ([email protected]) is managing editor and media director at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.