ANNAPOLIS – Special education students could stay in school longer under a measure debated in a Maryland House committee Tuesday.
The bill would require all counties to keep special education students in school until the end of the school year after they turn 21. If approved, it would be effective in October.
Twelve of Maryland’s 23 counties already do this, but the others make students leave either as soon as they turn 21 or one semester later.
The policy should be consistent statewide, supporters of the bill told the House Ways and Means Committee.
“The right to education should not depend on your ZIP code,” said Cristy Marchand, executive director of The Arc of Maryland, an advocacy organization for people with mental retardation.
Of the 110,000 students in Maryland special education programs, 581 will reach the age limit before the school year is over, and 218 of them are in districts that will make them leave before June, Marchand said.
Officials from school districts that graduate students soon after their 21st birthdays said it’s a successful policy they don’t want to change.
“It is in the interest of all parties in Montgomery County that the system that has been in place for 10 years continue,” said Verna Marie Chiarello, special education transition supervisor for Montgomery County schools, where students may finish a semester once they turn 21.
The county’s policy does not affect students’ ability to get into adult service programs, Chiarello said. But that’s not what the bill’s supporters say. Keeping students at school for the full year makes the transition easier for them and their families, as they search for jobs and adult service programs, proponents told lawmakers.
The proposal would cost local governments $2.7 million, and the state $1.4 million, according to the legislation.
Some counties take per student state funding to cover an entire school year and still make students leave before the year is over, said Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council spokeswoman, Catriona Johnson.
“It’s a crock that local boards would oppose this … because they’re receiving full state funding for these kids,” said Delegate James Hubbard, D- Prince George’s, bill sponsor.
At the hearing, Cheryl Geske, who lives in Montgomery County, told legislators that she feared her son David would be forced to leave the Maryland School for the Blind after his birthday in December 1998, so she hired a lawyer to help her get approval for him to stay.
She said David’s transition “went beautifully” because he finished the school year. Soon after he graduated in June 1999, he went to the Providence Center in Severna Park, which serves adults with mental disabilities.
If he had been forced to graduate in December 1998, there would have been no program for him to enter because the funding wasn’t available until June, Geske said.
A smooth transition is important for students with mental disabilities, she said. “They need a great deal of structure, much more than a typical student does,” she added.
Montgomery County graduates some students in December in order to avoid flooding adult service programs at one time, said Ray Bryant, director of Montgomery County’s Department of Special Education.
In Carroll County, students with birthdays after Oct. 1 may stay the full year, but those who turn 21 before then must graduate the previous June or on their birthday. Harry Fogle, supervisor of special education for Carroll County public schools, said deciding when to graduate such students should not be a state mandate: “Let the local systems make decisions in the best interest of the students they serve.” -30- CNS-2-23-00