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Groups push back on plan for local districts to be responsible for some children with disabilities

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public file
An education technician works on reading with a student, Jared, at a RISE classroom inside Lewiston's Geiger Elementary School.

Early childhood advocates Wednesday questioned a state proposal that would shift responsibility for special education for some young children from the state to local districts.

The proposal from the Maine Department of Education comes after years of legislative studies and discussions over the future of Child Development Services, a quasi-governmental agency that officials say has struggled with funding deficits, staff turnover, and long waitlists for services.

Under the plan, a new state agency would work with children with disabilities under age 3, and school districts would take over responsibility for children from age 3 to 5 over a two year period, beginning in 2024.

But it faced pushback at a hearing on the plan Wednesday. Some school officials worried about the effects of taking on responsibility for young children, and were unsure if they could find enough staff and building space to serve the students — particularly in small, rural communities.

Heather Marden, the policy director with the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, said that the plan should provide a lot more detail and guidance to schools, to ensure they work with child care programs and other partners to take on the new responsibility.

"Those are the pieces where those checks and balances come, to ensure that we don't do harm and are reducing those unintended consequences, as much as possible," Marden said.

State officials and some local administrators acknowledged those concerns, but said change was needed to fix a system that wasn't working for many children. Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry said the number of students coming from Child Development Services into her school district each year has nearly doubled since 2015, and many haven't received adequate support. Perry said she'd be willing to take over responsibility for those children if it meant improved outcomes.

"If that means I'm going to be able to work to strengthen those services and ensure that the students coming into my system are doing so with access to those high-quality programs that we all know are so necessary for those young learners as they come into our system," Perry said.

The Mills administration has allocated funding in recent years to add or expand preschool programs, and the state says it will use federal funds to expand programs further.