Lawmakers will take up a bill Monday that would shift all special education services for 3- to 5-year-olds to local school districts from the Maine Department of Education – which regularly runs over its $30 million annual budget for those services and often fails to adequately provide them.
Statewide, there are 2,068 children aged 3 to 5 with special education needs who get their services through the department’s Child Development Services. The annual budget has been running at multimillion-dollar deficits for years, driven by flat state funding and rising costs of special education services.
Education Commissioner Bob Hasson said the system isn’t working because a shortage of providers means too many of the children are not actually getting the services they need.
Special education covers a complex network of services, tailored to each individual student’s needs. According to a memo sent to school districts about the proposal last year, schools will not only provide the special education services, but they will also be responsible for finding the children, case management, evaluation, determining eligibility and developing individual education plans.
Shifting to a school-based model can increase access to services and cut costs because schools already have specialists and a transportation system, officials said. For example, instead of a hearing specialist driving two hours each way to work with a child at his or her home for one hour a week, the student can use the school bus transportation system to see a hearing specialist at a local school.
But school districts are already having trouble finding specialists for their special education students, and it was unclear whether shifting the program from Child Development Services to the schools would ease the shortage of providers.
“We have a whole set of questions,” said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association.
In general, superintendents have said they see the logic of the idea and recognize that many states already operate under systems similar to what the bill is proposing for Maine.
But there are practical questions about how to pay for it, whether districts have space in their buildings for more children, the ability to find specialists needed, or even have the appropriate buses and drivers to transport young children to school.
“With all these unanswered questions, it’s really hard to say let’s go gangbusters on this,” Bailey said last week. “In some districts it may work.”
A public hearing on the bill, L.D. 1870, is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.
Hasson, the education commissioner, said his department would continue to provide services for children from birth to age 2. But he said the department wanted the change because the current system isn’t working.
“It’s very, very frightening the number of students that go without services,” Hasson told York County superintendents last fall, when he presented the idea. “We have to organize it another way.”