New Settlement in Baltimore Spec. Ed. Case Brings Hope
Both sides in the long-standing case against the Baltimore district's special education system are optimistic that a new settlement will improve programs and ease the process of complying with court orders.
In its 16-year history, the lawsuit has had numerous agreements that raised hopes for a resolution, but all have failed. Now, lawyers representing the district's more than 17,000 special education students say the city is making strides toward improving its services, although work remains to be done.
The settlement in Vaughn G., et al., v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, reached last week, replaces a 1997 agreement that both parties agreed was too prescriptive and cumbersome. The new agreement sets specific performance outcomes, such as assessment scores and graduation rates, for the system's students with disabilities.
"We have defined and quantified outcomes that are achievable," said Carol Ann Baglin, the assistant superintendent for special education and early-intervention services for the Maryland Department of Education, a defendant in the case. In past settlements, she said, people tried to instill unrealistic expectations on the troubled urban district of 107,000 students.
The case is believed to be the first to establish specific outcomes for students with disabilities and may chart a new course for similar settlements in other districts, said Steven Ney, a lawyer for the students.
"The settlement today doesn't end the lawsuit, but sets it on the right track to a resolution by setting firm guideposts that the district will have to achieve," said Mr. Ney, a lawyer with the Maryland Disabilities Law Center in Largo, Md. "This is not the magic pill, but we hope it will move it in the right direction."
Setting Higher Goals
Mr. Ney said the lawyers for the students were not unhappy with Maryland's system for assessing disabled students—something that has been a concern for advocates nationally. Rather, they were concerned by the results of those assessments, which showed Baltimore's special education population lagging far behind their peers in other Maryland districts.
A panel of three well-known experts—Thomas Hehir, a former director of the U.S. Department of Education's office of special education programs and a consultant; Douglas Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University; and Sandra Hopfengardner Warren, a researcher at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina—evaluated Baltimore's programs and set the levels for the outcomes.
Mr. Hehir said the team of reseachers found that Baltimore, like many urban districts, was making progress but still had high levels of segregation between disabled and nondisabled students, and was struggling to provide services outlined in disabled students' individualized education plans. The panel, he added, wanted to be fair to the Baltimore district while setting high goals.
"We believed [the goals] had to reflect significantly better performance ... but be achievable—not easily achievable, but could be achievable over time," he said. "The result will hopefully be a more focused, more outcome-driven effort."
Specifics of Settlement
Under the May 1 agreement, the district must show within three years "significant progress" in reducing the disparity of the scores on state assessments between special education students and their nondisabled peers. That would translate to improvements of at least 10 percentage points based on the 1998-99 scores. The district will report annually on its students' progress on the tests, which are given in grades 2 through 6 and in grades 9 and 11.
The agreement also sets a goal for the district to increase within three years its graduation rate for students with disabilities from 32 percent to 41.6 percent, and increase the school-completion rate from 50 percent to 57.2 percent. And it stipulates that the same percentage of disabled students as nondisabled students should be placed in vocational education. That was added because some schools were putting too many special education students in vocational programs, while others were excluding disabled students who could have benefited from such training, said Donna Wulkan, another lawyer for the students.
A previous settlement stipulated that the district should work to lower the percentage of students in special education, which previously was estimated at 18 percent. However, Mr. Hehir said the researchers found that the number was accurate, given the high percentage of nondisabled district students who attend private and parochial schools and the factors that put more students at risk for disabilities in urban settings.
Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 9