At a time when the state faces a growing budget deficit and has one of the country’s highest percentages of children identified as needing special education, it is appropriate to review and strengthen Maine’s standards.
Before changes are made, however, the department must ensure that they don’t diminish the rights of students and their families to receive needed services.
The Department of Education recently proposed changes to the state’s special education law, which will move the state toward national norms while standardizing identification across the state. This makes sense, but may not save money or significantly reduce the number of children receiving special services.
Currently, districts vary widely in their identification of students with special needs. Some districts identify as few as 7 percent of students as qualifying for special education; at the high end, 35 percent of students are identified. Maine ranks in the top three in the country for the number of students identified as qualifying for special education.
At the same time, students who are identified as needing special services in one district are often found not to qualify when they move to a different district. The opposite is also common.
“We need consistency so kids get the services they need,” Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said earlier this week.
Both overidentification and underidentification can hurt children. If a student is improperly identified as needing special services, he may be placed in a classroom where he is not challenged academically. Worse, it is hard to shake being identified as a special education student, so these children may never return to a mainstream classroom.
Students who are behind in developing reading skills, for example, may be better served through literacy help than a special education diagnosis. Further, investing in early childhood programs that emphasize literacy skills are likely to have a bigger payoff than providing special education services to a child throughout elementary school.
Although not the sole impetus for the proposed rule change, special education overidentification also costs the state money.
Alan Cobo-Lewis, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maine and a special education advocate, has studied special education rates across the country. Nearby Vermont has strict identification standards like those Maine is considering. Yet it still has the wide disparities from district to district in the percentage of students identified as needing special services, according to his research.
This suggests that statewide standards, while needed, will not significantly change the landscape.
Cobo-Lewis rightly sees this debate as partially about power — whether parents or school administrators have more of it.
What cannot be lost is that the bottom line is ensuring children get the services they need. This can be done in a more consistent way without tipping the power balance too far in either direction.