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How Maryland legislators can fix a problem one mother found with special education

A therapist works with a child with autism doing ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapy. The photo chart and pictures are all my own (I make therapy materials for special needs kids). The exercise done here helps a child identify and manage emotions.

I recently wrote a post about Katherine Spurlock, a former public school teacher who moved to Montgomery County, Md., from a tiny school district in New York and discovered shocking about special education.

Spurlock wanted to make sure that her daughter, who has dyslexia, received appropriate interventions and placement in school but learned that Montgomery County — nor any other county in Maryland and perhaps across the United States — did not compile  data about how much money was being spent on early academic or behavioral interventions for students who need them.

Why does this matter? As I wrote in the earlier post, research shows that early interventions — from kindergarten through third grade — can help alleviate learning disabilities and improve student outcomes. The Maryland Special Education Census Data 2014-2015 showed that a large number of students in special education receive referrals after the K-3 period has passed — and that data suggests that by the time students with learning disabilities are referred for special-education services, wide achievement gaps already exist. But there isn’t a systematic way for a state to know who is doing what with specialized interventions for young children — even though federal law says schools must have intervention programs.

How one mother discovered a problem with special education and got legislators to help try to fix it

Spurlock persuaded some Maryland state legislators to introduce legislation requiring boards of education to annually report data on specialized intervention services to the State Department of Education and the General Assembly. Here’s a piece she wrote about where that legislation is headed and why it matters so much.

By Katherine Spurlock

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is important for students with disabilities.  It holds substantial promise for students in need of early intervention.

About half the students in special education have severe disabilities such as blindness, deafness, Down Syndrome, mental retardation, and other disabilities evident at birth or early in development. When these students receive effective intervention, their outcomes are better, but it wasn’t a lack of early intervention that created the disability they live with.

For about half the students in the United States served by special education, the situation is murkier.  They have mild or late appearing disabilities — often affecting learning and attention — that schools identify in later elementary school or even in middle or high school.  Part nature and part nurture, these learning problems can be curbed through early intervention.

But this means stark disparities exist between the children of the haves—who can better get intervention both inside and outside the schools—and the have nots.  Further, it’s not fanciful to say that a lack of effective early intervention creates many of the learning, attention, and emotional disabilities we see down the road.

Starting with the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004, federal law took the view that schools are accountable for disparities by mandating that schools have early-intervention programs in order to avoid racial disproportionality in special education, evident when more poor children are consigned to the special education classroom rather than the general education classroom.

IDEA 2004 made clear that it wasn’t only racism and cultural bias that were to blame for the over-representation of minorities in more restrictive learning environments, but the lack of effective early intervention.  Schools with significant over-representation were required to re-direct federal funding that supports special education to prevention in the form of early intervention programs focusing primarily on kindergarten through third grade.

But IDEA, while mandating early intervention, does not demand the data reporting that would provide real accountability.  This is a real problem, because sanctioning schools for over-representation creates a perverse incentive for schools to delay referring children of color for special education services.  The law designed to promote early intervention can in some cases have the opposite impact. If minority students are not significantly over-represented in schools in categories like learning disabilities because they have received quality intervention that’s a good thing.  But if the needs of minority children are more likely to be ignored, that is not a good thing at all.

Why the Supreme Court special education case about a boy with autism is so sickening

Data from Maryland shows that race is a factor in how students with learning disabilities are served in special education.  Among this group, there is a 13-percentage point gap between white student access to general education and African American and Latino access.   If we picture the general education classroom in Maryland, we see special educators working with a disproportionate number of white students on the diploma track.  This data begs questions about the early intervention African American and Latino students received.

Maryland has the opportunity to gain transparency about early intervention.  A first-of-its-kind bill in the General Assembly unanimously passed in the Senate and now is in committee in the House of Delegates.  If passed, this law would require annual reporting on the programs designed to combat racial disproportionality, or in plainer language, to level the playing field for students who struggle.  The cost of doing this data collection was projected to be negligible.

Disability Rights Maryland, the ACLU MD, and the Montgomery County Council all testified to support this bill. To their credit, Maryland school districts — including Montgomery, Baltimore City, Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, and Carroll — submitted written testimony in support of annual reporting.  They are willing to let the public see the work they do to provide early intervention and combat inequity.

Harford County Public Schools wrote to oppose, writing “in fiscally challenging times….[s]taffing levels that would produce the requested information no longer exist.  This causes some intervention programs to not be fully implemented, reducing the intervention options offered in a district.”

But lack of legally required intervention options in Maryland is a poor reason to avoid transparency.

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