Department deserves funds withheld by school system
This editorial represents the views of the Silver Chips editorial board.
Every year, barely one in three special-education students passes each of the three Maryland High School Assessments (HSAs) now required for graduation, according to the Maryland Report Card web site.
In contrast, close to three-fourths of on-level students pass.
Last year, instead of recognizing that many special-education students were going to fail to graduate and increasing funding to prevent this, MCPS policy-makers and Superintendent Jerry Weast denied the county's Special Education Department $5.4 million that was allotted to it.
This denial would have been misguided if passing the HSAs was not a graduation requirement. But at a time when unreasonable testing standards are a reality for all high-school students, MCPS's decision to deprive county Special Education departments of much-needed money is simply callous.
The $5.4 million figure is divided into two categories: unexpected additional special education revenue and budgeted funds that were not spent.
The first includes $726,000 in additional funding from the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents, $523,000 of reimbursements for private school tuition of special-education students and $618,000 due to higher-than-expected funding from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The second is comprised of $3.2 million MCPS budgeted but did not spend on special-education students who were referred to private schools and $1.9 million budgeted and not spent on replacing retiring staff and covering for absent staff members.
An additional $1.6 million spent on contracting staff positions to private companies puts the total amount of funds that were allocated to special education but not spent at $5.4 million. This funding debacle was detailed in June 14 and July 27 Board of Education minutes.
The loss of this money was more painful to other county schools than to Blair, because according to Principal Phillip Gainous, Blair's Special Education Department has more resources than those of most other schools.
Last year, a large and vocal group of Blair parents and teachers, including Gainous himself, lobbied for and received extra funds to address concerns about the lack of special-education staff.
The county met their demands, but, as Gainous said, the special education funding "pot" is limited. He and others were informed that the "extra" money Blair struggled to acquire came straight out of other county high schools' special education departments. "If we had that extra $5 million, we might have not needed to rob Peter to pay Paul," he said.
Jerry Weast and MCPS must look for every opportunity to increase special education funding in order to prepare special-education students for the HSAs instead of denying the departments money.
This school year, according to MCPS, the county's special education budget only increased 7.2 percent compared to a rise of 13.2 percent the year before. Yet in this year's annual budget address, Weast said that "improving special education achievement continues to be our priority."
Adding $5.4 million to this year's budget would have demonstrated how much of a concern special education is to Weast and MCPS, in addition to making the budget increase a more respectable 9.1 percent.
Instead of distorting MCPS's efforts on behalf of special-education students, Weast must admit that MCPS denied the Special Education Department much-needed funding and commit to increasing funding more next year.
Special-education students require more money than other students to learn the same material. Special education resource teacher Lisa Davisson emphasized that many of her students are struggling to read at even an elementary school level.
Disabled students already have enough difficulty passing HSAs for subjects in which they have learning disabilities without trying to understand material in a classroom with a 20:1 student teacher ratio, which Davisson says occurs regularly in Blair special-education classes.
These students urgently need smaller class sizes so that teachers can spend more time providing individual attention. The county's special education departments need more staff and technology to enable students to achieve and to prepare them to take the HSAs.
Davisson and Gainous are having difficulty comprehending why HSAs are required for special education students. Davisson called HSAs "flat out discrimination," and Gainous declared that the Special Education Department "absolutely should have extra funding" to help prepare struggling students for the HSAs.
It is not MCPS's fault that special-education students must pass the HSAs to graduate, but it is the county's responsibility to provide the resources necessary to even begin to solve the problem.
Instead, money has been allocated to less urgent endeavors. Bob Astrove, budget analyst and parent of two MCPS special-education students, found that $300,000 of the allotted special education funds may have gone to pay for palm pilots for elementary school teachers who wanted to have information on their students close at hand.
It is our duty to make sure all students, regardless of disability, receive a quality education and the tools necessary for success.
These are high-school students who cannot read, write or do basic arithmetic due to disabilities and who could fail to graduate from high school under the new HSA requirement.
Such wasteful spending is an affront to the county's special-education students. These resources should go toward preparing our students for the tests they need to pass in order to graduate. These resources cannot be withheld.
Our county's disgraceful treatment of special-education students is an embarassing stain on our school system's stellar reputation. Weast and MCPS must be committed to helping special-education students succeed, and realize that we owe them the funding they are due.
Jordan Fein. Jordan Fein is a magnet senior (woot!) who is enamored of politics and journalism. He is very politically active and enjoys talking politics with whomever is willing. Politics, politics, politics. He is looking forward to his second year of writing on Silver Chips and especially … More »