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Maine's Department of Education unveils new plan for embattled Child Development Services agency

The Maine Department of Education unveiled a new plan Thursday for Maine's agency overseeing the education for young children with disabilities.

Maine is the only state that provides special education for preschoolers through a state agency, instead of under the oversight of local public school districts. But the state's Child Development Services has faced heavy criticism for years over long waitlists, leaving some children unable to access services in the manner required by federal law for months or years.

In a report released on Thursday, the Maine Department of Education detailed a number of other issues with the program, including an inadequate data system and an over-reliance on special purpose private school settings, which it describes as the "most restrictive environment," leading many students excluded from their peers in general classrooms.

Education Commissioner Pender Makin told lawmakers on Thursday that under a sweeping new proposal from the department, oversight for those 3- and 4-year-olds with disabilities would gradually shift from the state to local school districts, over a three-year period.

Under the proposal, Makin said those students could continue to receive services through a range of options — public schools, private schools and other community partners. The commissioner added that the state's current Child Development Services offices would be restructured but remain open, and would instead function as "service hubs" to assist schools.

"It will keep them employed, because we need their expertise and their experience, and their knowledge of the network of private providers, and their knowledge of the gaps where services are scarce or nonexistent," Makin said.

Makin said the DOE would also expand eligibility criteria for children up to 2 years old to receive special education services, which she said would allow the state to provide services to those children much earlier, hopefully leading to less need for special education services later on.

Gov. Janet Mills signaled her support for such a proposal in her State of the State address earlier this week, saying that educating pre-K children with disabilities through their public school systems will "be better for Maine children."

While the department indicated the proposal was intended as a starting point for potential legislation, some lawmakers said they are concerned about whether local school districts could handle the additional administrative responsibilities.

The DOE also said that the state would ultimately pay for the additional costs associated with the new system, but some legislators expressed concerns that some of those costs could ultimately fall on local school districts.

The Legislature's education committee is expected to continue to discuss the issue over the coming weeks.