AUGUSTA, Maine — Education Commissioner Susan Gendron is proposing an overhaul of the way the state provides special education to students, with an independent report showing those costs increasing at twice the rate of other education spending.
In 2007-2008, the total instructional cost of special education programs was just over $300 million for about 18,000 students in the programs. The total for regular students was $830.8 million for about 174,000 students.
Gendron said there is a wide disparity among school units across the state in how they assess students and implement the programs to serve those that are determined to have special needs.
“We have wide variations in identification, based on interpretation,” she said. “If we can get greater agreement around identification, those are really the students that should be served.”
The disparity among counties in assessing disabilities is dramatic as outlined by the consulting group McKinsey & Co., in a report to Gov. John Baldacci.
For example, the number of students identified with emotional disabilities in Androscoggin County is four times that of Franklin County, and Penobscot County has three times more cases of students with autism than in Lincoln County.
“We’re not proposing student needs not be served, but we are raising questions whether they are truly special education students,” Gendron said.
She said different schools are assessing the needs of students very differently under the current law. She acknowledged attempts in the past to tighten criteria for special education services have failed in the Legislature but said the need to better control costs has increased.
“We are really trying to get a greater coherence and conformity of the interpretation of the evaluation criteria,” she said. “The more you leave it vague; it will in fact lead to varied interpretations throughout the state.”
Gendron, in meetings with both the Education and Appropriations Committees, said lawmakers have been disturbed at the increasing costs. She said while general instructional costs have been increasing less than 3 percent, special education costs have been increasing more than 6 percent.
“It is a very worrisome trend,” she said.
Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, the GOP leader on the Appropriations Committee and a former education commissioner, said the state has been struggling with the desire to provide quality programs for special education students with the increasing costs of the programs.
“The more consistent we can be, the better it will be overall for the system,” he said. “I agree we should take a look at how we can improve these programs.”
He said legislation involving special education, including the preschool programs offered through Child Developmental Services, has always been controversial.
“Even so, we need to look at this whole area,” he said.
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, is the co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee and has served on the Education Committee.
She said the federal mandate to provide special education programs never has been fully funded by Congress and that state and local schools have struggled to meet the responsibility to create the whole range of programs under special education. She said the legislation would need to answer some tough questions from lawmakers, schools and parents.
“How do you get at that without unintentional consequences, like children that need services not getting them?” she asked. “How do you get at equity without excluding those children that really need a certain level of service?”
Cain agreed with Gendron that the issue needs to be tackled for both cost and quality. She said the early childhood development issues are very much a part of the whole special education process, with early identification of children with special needs a key to their entire education.
“This whole subject is as emotional as it is expensive,” Cain said.
The final version of Gendron’s proposal is weeks away. The proposal will be printed later this year as a bill so lawmakers have a copy before they reconvene Jan. 6, 2010.