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Bill to change special education for Maine’s youngest children advances in House, Senate

A bill that would restructure Maine’s broken system of educating young children with disabilities has passed initial votes in the House and the Senate this week.

The support the legislation garnered in the House, where it passed on a 96-52 vote Wednesday, was echoed Thursday in the Senate, where lawmakers voted 27-8 to transfer the responsibility of educating Maine’s youngest children with disabilities to local school districts.

“This bill is going to do a lot of good things for a lot of school districts,” Sen. James Libby, a Republican from Standish, said on the Senate floor Thursday.

The proposal still needs to be voted on a second time in each chamber and be funded by the Legislature’s appropriations committee before going to Gov. Janet Mills, who will have 10 days to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without her signature.

L.D. 345 would overhaul Child Development Services, the state agency currently responsible for providing services such as physical and speech therapy to children with disabilities from birth until they reach kindergarten.

Among other things, the bill would transfer that responsibility from CDS to local school districts for 3- and 4-year-old children, expand eligibility requirements for children from birth to 3 years of age to get services and create a support network to assist schools in taking on this mammoth task.

The bill requires the state to pay the cost, estimated to be $10 million annually, through a funding formula similar to that used to fund K-12 school districts.

Under federal law, children are legally entitled to receive any services and support they need in order to access public education. That begins when children are born and lasts until they reach 22 years of age. CDS for decades has been in charge of ensuring that Maine’s youngest children receive those services.

But the agency, which is overseen by the Department of Education, has been failing to provide children the services they need and are legally entitled to, leaving hundreds of disabled children without speech, physical and occupational therapy, as well as behavioral support.

In early fall, 550 children, around 18% of CDS’ clients, were going without services, state officials said at a hearing in February.

Officials have known for years that CDS was failing, but the issue received renewed attention this year when 96% of CDS workers said they had no confidence in their director, Roberta Lucas, saying she created a toxic work culture and that her management contributed to CDS’ failure to provide services in a timely manner. Lucas retired this month.

The Department of Education has said the reason for its inability to fulfill its legal requirement is that the structure of CDS as an independent agency under the DOE is ineffective and that transitioning the responsibilities of the organization to local public school districts, as outlined in L.D. 345, would better serve children.

But some lawmakers said the bill was rushed through the session too quickly.

“This bill is not ready,” Rep. Barbara Bagshaw, R-Windham, said before the House vote. “The Department of Education has way too much on their plate as evidenced by our test scores slipping again and I don’t feel we should put any more on the plate right now.”

Sheila Lyman, R-Livermore Falls, who is on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and voted against recommending the bill out of committee, agreed with Bagshaw.

She has concerns about the bill’s price tag, questioned the idea that the public school system should be in charge of 3-year-olds and said the bill generally needs further work.

“This bill is beginning an unpredictable journey through a complex maze with an uncertain future and a very costly endeavor,” she said.

If the bill becomes law, the state will begin a four-year process of transitioning the responsibility for 3- and 4-year-old children with disabilities to school districts, organize a system of CDS staff to help school districts with the transition, develop a parental advisory committee to follow and provide recommendations regarding the changes and expand eligibility for services for children from birth until they reach 3 years of age, among other things.

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