Blacks make up one-fifth of the student population in both Montgomery and Anne Arundel county public schools. But they make up two-fifths of the group labeled mentally retarded.

The two Maryland school systems are among five that face state sanctions because they steer too many struggling black students into special education with problems that, in a number of cases, could be addressed in a regular classroom, according to federal education officials. Starting this summer, the systems must spend a combined $8 million a year on efforts to reduce the number of black students in special-ed.

Young black students with academic or behavioral problems tend to wind up in special education, educators say, based on a teacher's impulse to place such children where they will get the most help. Special-ed classes are staffed at a far lower student-to-teacher ratio than regular classes.

But some black parents and others have accused school systems across the country of using special education, a federally subsidized program tailored for children with documented disabilities, as a dumping ground for disruptive black children. The Education Department found that, in 2003, although about 15 percent of all students ages 6 to 21 were black, they made up 20 percent of all special-education students and 34 percent of those labeled mentally retarded in that age range.

Black parents picketed the Montgomery school board in March, alleging the school system placed too many black students in special education and too few in magnet programs. NAACP leaders noted a similar pattern in Anne Arundel last year. A change in federal law effective July 1 calls for action. In Maryland, school systems in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Harford, Montgomery and St. Mary's counties must begin spending 15 percent of their federal special-education dollars on remedial programs.

"They have to do this. They don't have any wiggle room," said Carol Ann Baglin, an assistant superintendent of Maryland schools. "It's a good way to try to intervene and divert some students from special education."

The Virginia Department of Education has a similar initiative affecting as many as 30 of the state's 132 school systems, said H. Douglas Cox, assistant superintendent for special education and student services. Virginia officials declined to release details, saying the analysis of data is not finished.

The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, first passed in 1997, "really was meant to reduce the number of kids going into special education," Baglin said. "But because we have extra money going into special education, you end up sending kids who have problems into special education because then they can get extra support."

The five counties were cited because black students were overrepresented in three areas of special education: first, the counties had a disproportionate share of black students in special-education as a whole; second, blacks were disproportionately likely to be placed in separate special-ed classrooms rather than "mainstreamed" with the general student population; and third, blacks in special education were particularly likely to be suspended.

Eighteen of the 24 school systems in Maryland had "significantly disproportional" shares of blacks in at least one of the three areas, according to state data.

Blacks make up 22 percent of the student population in Montgomery County. But they make up 42 percent of the population considered mentally retarded and 36 percent of special-ed students taught in separate classes, and blacks account for 52 percent of suspensions among students with disabilities, according to enrollment counts taken in October.

The Anne Arundel school system is 21 percent black. But in that system, blacks make up 43 percent of students who are considered mentally retarded, 36 percent of the special-ed population taught in separate classes and 41 percent of suspensions.

Diane Black, director of special education in Anne Arundel, said she was aware of the disparity and is working to correct it. Part of the problem, she said, is that special education is so generously funded that teachers in regular classrooms have come to think of it as a safety net for all manner of academic and behavioral malaise.

Teachers who refer students to special education "are doing it to be proactive and attempting to get services and support for the student," Black said. "They're not doing it to punish kids. They're doing it to get the help they think is needed."

Under the revamped federal law, each of the five school systems must now devote 15 percent of its federal special-education funds -- $3.9 million in Montgomery, $2.1 million in Anne Arundel, $1.1 million in Harford, $442,000 in St. Mary's and $426,000 in Calvert -- to intervention programs, with a special focus on students in kindergarten through grade 3 who are at risk of being put in special education.

In Calvert County, students lagging in reading skills will get 30 minutes daily of special literacy help for 100 school days. Only then, Welsh said, will teachers consider placing the child in special education.

Anne Arundel has a similar intervention program in place, devoting at least 100 hours of special instruction to students struggling in reading in the second and third grades, Black said.