ANNAPOLIS – In poorer public school districts in Maryland, the percentage of students receiving special education is disproportionately higher than in wealthier districts, and has been since early 2000.
It’s a nationwide trend that experts say isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since schools in low-income areas have few other ways to address poverty-related disadvantages that affect students’ learning abilities.
About 15 percent of students in Maryland’s top five poorest school districts received special education services last year, compared to about 10 percent in the five wealthiest districts, according to a Capital News Service analysis of the most recent Maryland Department of Education data.
Unlike labeling a child blind or deaf, other special education codes – particularly ‘learning disabled’ and ‘emotionally disturbed’ – aren’t as clearly defined and involve “some judgment and subjectivity,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit educational organization.
Kids in poor areas struggle or act out in class “because of the challenges of poverty,” he said, and are more likely to get labeled.
Baltimore, the second poorest district in the state according to U.S. Census data, has nearly double the percentage of students – 16 percent – in special education than Howard County, the wealthiest district, with 8.6 percent.
Low-income kids enter kindergarten already behind, said Abigail Thernstrom, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research group.
“Social class is a reality. There are student differences tied to social-class differences,” she said.
Parents reading to their children, making sure they eat a healthy breakfast and get enough sleep all affect a child’s learning ability, experts said.
“If you have a hungry kid in the classroom they can actually test for having a disability,” said Andrea Kalvesmaki, a medical anthropologist specializing in mental health disability at the Education Policy Institute, a nonprofit educational research and public policy group.
With less community support and fundraising power, schools in low-income areas shouldn’t be blamed for “flagging problems they see … That is their only means for helping,” she said. Placing a student in special education because of poverty-related challenges “can actually help them so they can get extra services.”
Thernstrom said this doesn’t mean students are being mislabeled.
“These kids come in way behind,” and schools are responding to that, she said.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, last amended in 2004, governs special education and states a child cannot be deemed disabled if the “determinant factor is lack of proper reading instruction, lack of math instruction or limited English fluency.”
There’s no way to tell if a school is unfairly labeling students, said Debra Gardner, communications specialist for the Maryland State Education Association, a union that lobbies for teacher and student needs. “But it does raise a red flag when you see a trend in a specific area, school or neighborhood.”
The root problem is that poverty-related disadvantages are complex and hard to correct, especially through school systems.
“The important variables here are social class and parental education,” Thernstrom said. “Is the state working with parents in charge to create a better environment for academic learning?”
Staff commonly visit families’ homes and make suggestions, sometimes on “very basic parenting skills in combination with” special education, but they can’t force a family to comply, said Judy Pattik, special education coordinator for Howard County Public Schools.
Pattik doesn’t know why her district’s numbers are so low, but speculates the county’s strong early intervention program – beginning special education as soon as possible, ideally before kids are even in school – and extra help in regular classes, keeps kids from struggling.
Howard County resident Kim McKay has a 16-year-old son with autism enrolled in public high school. He’s received special education through the Howard County Public School System since he was 15 months old.
McKay said her son now takes all of his classes in regular classrooms with regular students where teachers adjust lessons for him as needed.
She said she was lucky to already live in a district with “one of the best” public special education systems in the state. If she didn’t, she would have sought services elsewhere.
“There are a couple counties where I feel like the system is set up not against families, but not about families … There seems to be more concern about budget than about what kids need,” she said.
Some counties have worked to change their numbers.
About 10 years ago, Allegany County, Maryland’s third poorest district at the time, had the highest proportion of special education students in the state – 18 percent.
Concerned Allegany school officials went to the Maryland Department of Education, which contracted a consulting firm to analyze the school system, as well as those in Washington and Garrett counties that sit on either side of Allegany.
The firm concluded that while there was “insufficient conclusive evidence” the county was over-identifying students, certain factors contributed to the high percentage.
These included a continuing decline in overall school enrollment, which, when the number of kids receiving special education isn’t declining, makes it hard to keep percentages down. They also pointed to “several social and economic factors,” like high drug use and low median incomes, as well as other factors.
Allegany schools made changes in special and general education, such as enhancing pre-school programs and offering extra help in regular classes.
Since then, the percentage of special education students has declined to about 13 percent, the fourth highest percentage in the state. Allegany is Maryland’s poorest district.
“Funding does not drive services. Anything a child needs … we must deliver,” said Marcella Franczkowski, assistant state superintendent of the division of special education and early intervention services at the Maryland Department of Education.
Schools must meet the same federal and state standards, but counties can deliver services in ways that best fit their demographics, which could account for disparities across the state, she said.
“You could not possibly expect services to be delivered the same way in Allegany County as in Baltimore County,” she said. “With the distance between schools and homes, things are very different.”
Educators and analysts agree early intervention and mainstreaming are the best routes to ensure kids get help and eventually don’t need extra services.
Maryland is one of six states that provide special education from birth to 21 years old, and has been focusing on mainstreaming and early intervention over the past several years, Franczkowski said.
Statewide, the number of special education students has declined from 12.2 percent in 2003 to 11.4 percent in 2011, below the national average of 13 percent, which, Franczkowski said, “reflects our work.”
But to shrink the disparity, people must talk about learning disability and poverty together, Kalvesmaki said. We “can’t take poverty out of the equation.”