Maine floats changes to special education standards

Posted Dec. 03, 2009, at 9:05 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The state Department of Education has introduced a set of proposed rule changes designed to bring Maine’s special education guidelines in line with federal standards, ensure more statewide uniformity and perhaps save money in the process.

Education Commissioner Susan Gendron and department spokesman David Connerty-Marin met Thursday with the Bangor Daily News to talk about coming state education initiatives, including those related to special education. Superintendents across the state already had been informed this week of the state’s proposed changes, and DOE officials are bracing for possible backlash.

“We recognize that we’re going to be accused of trying to get kids off of special education in order to save money, but that’s not true,” Connerty-Marin said.

While the changes are expected to reduce costs, the bigger goal is to bring uniformity to both the process of identifying students for special education and to providing needed services, Gendron said.

Right now, for instance, the gap in percentages of students in special education from district to district ranges from as low as 7 percent to as high as 35 percent. Additionally, a child identified for special services in one district might not qualify if the child moved to a different district.

Other changes seek to bring certain timing elements in line with federal standards — such as when school systems should begin postsecondary transition planning for special education students, the statute of limitations on due process hearings, and the timeline for evaluations for 3- to 5-year-olds.

State education officials discussed the proposed changes with members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee this summer at their request.

“We spend $300 million on special education and it keeps escalating way above the federal norm,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “And it’s not equally funded throughout the state. Given the severe budget cuts we’re facing, we need to look at all programs and see if they are run efficiently. It’s a common-sense thing to do.”

Jill Adams, executive director of Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, said the proposed changes did not bother her.

“Many of the changes are changes we wanted originally,” she said. “In these times, we need to provide, but we need to provide within the laws, and our state rules go well beyond federal law.”

Maine is perennially in the top three in state spending for special education, according to Gendron. Some funding for special education, Gendron said, is not necessarily used for that purpose. For instance, there are some students in some districts who are identified with special needs because there is no other category. These students might need only extra reading help as opposed to a full special education curriculum, which is much more costly.

Another example, Gendron said, is early childhood intervention. Students who receive targeted help early in their educational career are much less likely to be identified for special education later on.

“Right now, every district has discretion over how they identify special education needs,” the commissioner said. As a result, the range in percentage of children in special education from district to district is wide.

Because the proposed changes represent a shift, not every school administrator or parent is going to be happy.

“I do think we’ll need to educate parents,” Adams said. “As a parent, you want the best for your children.”

Diamond said the Appropriations Committee did not set any target goal for savings.

“We cannot go in and slash it by a certain amount of money,” Diamond said. “But we can look for efficiencies and that’s what we’re doing.”

A public hearing will be held later this month in Augusta to discuss the proposed changes. The cutoff for written public comment is Dec. 31. Shortly after the new year begins, the department will submit its updated plans to the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee for consideration. The DOE is hoping to finish the proposed changes before the beginning of the fall 2010 school year.

The full text of the proposed rule changes may be found online at: http://www.maine.gov/education/rulechanges.htm.

erussell@bangordailynews.net

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