Friday, September 7, 2007

Special education--public or private?

For parents of disabled children in Maryland, it has to seem like there's no good choice for their children’s education.

After reading this afternoon that more than 30 Baltimore city school bus drivers are refusing to work because their paychecks bounced, I happened upon an AP story that, for a moment, had me thinking privatization may be the answer.

Former social worker Mark Claypool entered the world of private, for-profit special education schools in 1999. Now his company, Educational Services of America, operates more than 120 schools in 16 states (none in Maryland). The company generated $75 million in revenue this year.

ESA, based in Nashville, Tenn., partnered with a private equity firm in 2004. It also receives funding from vouchers, state contracts and, of course, tuition, which ranges from $8K to $49K per year, depending upon the student's needs.

One of ESA's competitors is Baltimore-based Alternatives Unlimited, founded by Dr. Stuart Berger, who served as superintendent of both Baltimore County’s and Frederick County’s school systems. Berger also received a law degree from the University of Maryland.

But Berger's company doesn’t operate any schools in Maryland. Although the company Web site says Berger "conceived Alternatives Unlimited because of his deep concern about the number of students who 'fall through the cracks' in public education, especially in urban school districts," the nearest A.U. schools are in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

Maybe that's because of the controversy surrounding his tenure in Baltimore Co., including his "inclusion" program that reassigned many disabled students to mainstream schools.

How about it? Who should (and can) serve Maryland special education students best: private companies (any takers?) or the public system?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

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