WASHINGTON – Maryland schools have reduced racial disparities in their special education programs, five years after the state signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights to do so.
The improvement has been marginal and uneven, with some areas of the state narrowing the gap more slowly than others. But state officials said they were pleased with the results, noting that improving equity in the special education program is a “long-term effort” and that huge changes will not be immediately evident.
“This is something we are proactively trying to address for the best interest of the kids,” said Jack Mead, a consultant for the Maryland Department of Education’s special-education early-intervention services.
Statewide, the disparity between the minority school population and the minority population of special education classes has narrowed from 3.3 percent in 1995 to 2.5 percent in 1999. The biggest improvements have come in the Upper Shore and Southern Maryland regions.
Federal officials said the numbers tell only part of the story, and that Maryland schools seem to be doing a better job of being color-blind when classifying special education students.
“While the numbers are something we look at as an initial matter, the inquiry goes well beyond numbers,” said Charles Smailer, of the Office of Civil Rights Philadelphia regional office.
The office got involved with Maryland in 1995, when it noticed disparities in the numbers of minority students in special education classes in Howard, Harford, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Those counties appeared to have disproportionately large numbers of minorities in the special classes, compared to the general minority population in the school systems.
The federal office said then that it wanted to look into the state’s special education procedures. Maryland said it “was willing to work together” with the office, and it signed the agreement stating that it would work to close the gap between the minority school populations and their representation in special education classes.
The Maryland Department of Education voluntarily expanded its efforts in 1997 to cover all counties in the state.
Since then, Maryland school systems have been revamping their assessment and placement of disabled students in an effort to eliminate any possible discrimination.
State schools “are looking at ways to improve their practices so they are sure they are not over-identifying kids,” said Assistant State Superintendent Carol Ann Baglin. “It’s a general education issue as much of a special education issue.”
That means giving students the extra help they need — through summer, after-school, math and reading programs — before they are improperly labeled as special education students.
While one national advocate said there is no concrete way to determine whether Maryland’s efforts have actually reached and helped students, she said the state has made a greater move toward fixing the disparity than most states.
“There is a problem (with racial disparity) all over the United States,” said Kayte Fearn, a special assistant for diversity affairs with the Council for Exceptional Children. “But I do think Maryland is proceeding in the right direction.”
Fearn said she has attended the state’s annual conference to address racial disparities for the past three years and has been generally impressed. At the conference, guest speakers and local school districts share their best methods for making special education more equal.
“What the conferences do is really bring to the awareness of the administration in the counties that they need to be doing something,” she said.