Bilingual, special education are ignored in reform plan

The ambitious school reform plan crafted by Massachusetts Democratic leaders ignores any discussion of bilingual or special education, two controversial and vital programs in which changes are critical to the improvement of public education, educators say.

For the past several months there has been debate statewide on how to improve bilingual and special education programs so that they do not drain badly needed funds from regular education, while providing improved services to students enrolled in the programs.

About 21 percent of the state’s 844,848 public school students are enrolled in bilingual or special education.

But architects of the comprehensive blueprint for educational improvement deemed special and bilingual education too emotionally charged to address in their plan.

“The issues posed by bilingual and special education are in my opinion so intractable and contentious that they have to be dealt with on their own,” said Sen. Thomas F. Birmingham (D-Chelsea), cochairman of the Joint Education Committee and co-author of the reform report. “I honestly fear that if we also tried to do bilingual and special education in this program it would have caused the implosion of this plan.”

Birmingham stressed that the omission of these two areas does not mean that they are not important or that they do not need to be dealt with as part of an attempt to overhaul the state’s public education structure.

“We are not saying that we accept the status quo or that significant changes do not need to be made,” Birmingham said. “We will deal with them.”

Bilingual and, in particular, special education have become explosive issues in many school districts as local leaders struggle to deal with severe financial constraints that have led to teacher layoffs and the retrenchment or elimination of programs in areas such as dropout prevention.

Because services in bilingual and special education must be provided under state and federal laws, they have been largely shielded from the educational cuts undertaken by towns and cities. The bulk of the reductions has targeted regular education programs, a tactic that has proven divisive in some communities with large numbers of minorities enrolled in bilingual education.

The steady and dramatic growth in the enrollment levels in special and bilingual education ensures that they will consume even larger proportions of local education budgets. No serious statewide reform plan can work unless it deals with these two thorny areas, some educators say.

“I would express incredulity that they would be left out of the reform plan,” said Elliot Feldman, the director of special education for the Boston public schools. Feldman said last month he met to discuss special education with Rep. Mark Roosevelt, a Beacon Hill Democrat, cochairman of the Joint Education Committee and co-author of the reform report.

According to a state Department of Education report released this week, 36,427 students are enrolled in bilingual education programs, an increase of 4,643 since 1987. The languages most in demand are Spanish, Portuguese and Khmer.

Many more students are enrolled in special education programs. Currently, 143,373 youngsters, or about 17 percent of the state’s public school students, are enrolled in special education, according to the state Department of Education.

Earlier this year, both the state Department of Education and the state auditor’s office issued reports calling for an overhaul of special education to decrease the number of students being referred to the program.

Within the state Department of Education there is internal discussion on ways to amend the state’s special education law to provide clear eligibility guidelines for the program. The state’s special education law adopted in 1972 is considered among the more progressive and stringent in the nation and was used as a model for the federal statute.

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