ANNAPOLIS — In poorer public school districts in Maryland, the percentage of students receiving special education is disproportionately higher than in wealthier districts, and has been since early 2000.
It's a nationwide trend that some say isn't necessarily a bad thing, because schools in low-income areas have few other ways to address poverty-related disadvantages that affect students' learning abilities.
About 15 percent of students in Maryland's top five poorest school districts received special education services last year, compared with about 10 percent in the five wealthiest districts, according to a Capital News Service analysis of the most recent Maryland Department of Education data.
Unlike labeling a child blind or deaf, other special education codes — particularly 'learning disabled' and 'emotionally disturbed' — aren't as clearly defined and involve "some judgment and subjectivity," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit educational organization.
Children in poor areas struggle or act out in class "because of the challenges of poverty," he said, and are more likely to get labeled.
Baltimore, the second-poorest district in the state according to U.S. Census data, has nearly double the percentage of students — 16 percent — in special education than does Howard County, the wealthiest district, with 8.6 percent.
Low-income students enter kindergarten already behind, said Abigail Thernstrom, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit public policy research group.
"Social class is a reality. There are student differences tied to social-class differences," she said.
Parents reading to their children and making sure they eat a healthy breakfast and get enough sleep affect a child's learning ability, medical professionals said.
"If you have a hungry kid in the classroom, they can actually test for having a disability," said Andrea Kalvesmaki, a medical anthropologist specializing in mental health disability at the Education Policy Institute, a nonprofit educational research and public policy group.
With less community support and fundraising power, schools in low-income areas shouldn't be blamed for "flagging problems they see. That is their only means for helping," she said. Placing a student in special education because of poverty-related challenges "can actually help them so they can get extra services."
Ms. Thernstrom said this doesn't mean students are being mislabeled.
"These kids come in way behind," and schools are responding to that, she explained.
The root problem is that poverty-related disadvantages are complex and hard to correct, especially through school systems.
"The important variables here are social class and parental education," Ms. Thernstrom said. "Is the state working with parents in charge to create a better environment for academic learning?"
Staffers commonly visit families' homes and make suggestions, sometimes on "very basic parenting skills in combination with" special education, but they can't force a family to comply, said Judy Pattik, special education coordinator for Howard County Public Schools.
Ms. Pattik doesn't know why her district's numbers are so low, but she speculates the county's strong early intervention program — beginning special education as soon as possible, ideally before youngsters are even in school — and extra help in regular classes, keep students from struggling.
Schools must meet the same federal and state standards, but counties can deliver services in ways that best fit their demographics, which could account for disparities across the state, she said.
"You could not possibly expect services to be delivered the same way in Allegany County as in Baltimore County," said Marcella Franczkowski, assistant state superintendent of the division of special education and early intervention services at the Maryland Department of Education. "With the distance between schools and homes, things are very different."