Baltimore's special ed case: Will it ever end?
It's been 24 years since Vaugn G. et al. vs. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al. was filed in federal district court. In my story today, Nancy Grasmick likened it to the Cold War. And some wonder whether the lawsuit -- charging the city school system and the state education department with failing to meet their legal responsibilities to special education students -- will ever end. Around the nation, a few school districts have gotten out from under suits of this kind, but in many places, they linger on indefinitely.
But Dr. Alonso wants this monkey off his back. The case takes up a huge amount of time and costs the school system a fortune. He's only been on the job a little over a year, but he says there have been measurable improvements and the system deserves to be rewarded as a result, particularly when it's doing better in several areas than some other Maryland school districts that aren't the subject of lawsuits. The court monitors seven aspects of special education in the system, which says it is now in full or partial compliance with three of them. If Alonso can get the court to drop a few of the measures it's monitoring, he'll be on his way to making the suit go away.
At the same time, Alonso recognizes the need to demonstrate the system can sustain improvement over time. He says he's committed to being in Baltimore for 10 years, but what if he were to leave? If he stays, how do we know his reforms are going to work? Even with significant progress, the system still has a long way to go, as made painfully evident by the improved graduation rate for special education students in Baltimore: 35.9 percent.
If the document the system filed in court last week is any indication, Alonso is extremely confident of the prospects of success. The system was required to submit a "compliance statement" to the court, evaluating where it stands in the seven measures monitored. The 38-page document it turned in went far beyond those areas, talking about everything from improved SAT scores to the central office reorganization to the increase in collaborative planning among teachers. Much of it is not directly related to special education, though it's widely agreed that general education has to be working well for special ed to function. You can read the court filing here.
On a side note, it's been interesting for me to track the politics surrounding this case in the three-plus years I've been covering it. When I first arrived on the city schools beat in the summer of 2005, the state and the city were sparring for control of the school system amid a gubernatorial election, with special ed as the punching bag. Services to children had broken down as a result of the budget crisis, and Grasmick was asking Judge Marvin Garbis to authorize a state takeover of the whole system. Instead, Garbis allowed Grasmick to send in a team of state managers to oversee special ed. At the time, we characterized it as a partial takeover of all the system departments that are special ed-related, from instruction to human resources. The team never really exercised that kind of authority, and today the four remaining full-time members work side by side with system administrators. Some of the team members have even gone to work for Alonso. But I wouldn't say the tension is gone completely. If you read my story closely, you'll notice that Alonso gives his administration's initiatives credit for the improvement in special ed. Grasmick -- who acknowledges improvement but not as much as the system does -- says the credit belongs largely to the team members.