The Maine Department of Education under Gov. Janet Mills is proposed making local school districts responsible for special education screenings of 3- to 5-year-olds as well as for providing appropriate services to children with disabilities and developmental delays. Those services are currently provided by a state agency. Credit: Stock photo

Jaime McLeod believes Maine can improve how it delivers special education to its youngest children. But she is skeptical that the most recent proposal to shift it to public schools is ready.

McLeod’s 3-year-old daughter, Lydia, who has cerebral palsy, goes to an Auburn preschool every school day. The school is great for her daughter, but McLeod said getting reliable transportation from their Winthrop home and the equipment her daughter needs to attend comfortably through the state’s Child Development Services program has been a hassle.

The program provides speech and occupational therapy and psychological and other services to children under age 6. Maine is one of the few states where those services are provided not by schools, but instead by regional offices that provide case management and arrange services for thousands of children in their geographic areas.

Lawmakers and advocates agree the system needs reforms, but snags that have held up previous transition attempts have reemerged. Efforts to shift responsibility for the services to school districts have failed under the last two governors. Gov. Janet Mills is trying again after lawmakers directed the state to study the issue and come up with a transition plan, but some say the proposed timeline and approach could set the transition up for failure.

Clockwise from top right, Jaime McLeod is pictured with her daughter Lydia, wife Melissa and their son Silas. Lydia, a 3-year-old with cerebral palsy, gets services under the state’s Child Development Services program. Credit: Courtesy of Jaime McLeod

McLeod was one of the parent advocates who helped shape recommendations on how to revamp the program. She said changing it too quickly could lead to children falling through the cracks if school districts are not given enough time and guidance to adapt.

“Kids are going to suffer if they don’t get it right and we’re going to feel the ramifications of that for the rest of their education,” she said.

The proposal would have big effects on state business. Child Development Services employs 400 people and their positions would have to be eliminated by 2026 under the state’s plan. Some may be hired by schools or given retirement options. Schools would be responsible for older children by next summer, while younger ones would be phased in over three years. Costs would be paid through a mix of private insurance and public education and health funds.

Child Development Services has struggled for well over a decade. In 2005, lawmakers cut the program’s funding and asked for a reorganization plan. The state suggested shifting some services to schools, but the Legislature rejected the plan after a study found the program was performing well under former Gov. John Baldacci.

Rule changes in 2010 then made the program more reliant on state funding. It often ran over budget in the ensuing years. Former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration at first amplified administrative cuts made under Baldacci and in 2017 put forward a plan to hand off the program. Around then, the Bangor Daily News reported children waited longer for services than they should have legally had to. Lawmakers made no major changes.

The new state proposal comes after the Legislature commissioned a review of the program and passed  three  bills on the topic, including one directing the state to come up with a plan to transition children 4 and older to schools, which McLeod advised on. Recommendations from a legislative study included a three-year transition to preschool education for older children.

But the state’s plan essentially ignores those recommendations, said Rita Furlow, a policy analyst at Maine Children’s Alliance. Many schools are not used to providing services to students under 5 and districts struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic may have a hard time finding staff to do the work, she said.

“It basically feels like this isn’t a plan that is well-thought-out and ready to go,” Furlow said.

A survey of two advisory groups found the majority of the group members felt the state plans needed more discussion. Moving older children to schools by next summer and moving 3-year-olds over in general was widely opposed.

The state estimates that many of the costs for older children will be covered under existing funding, but it notes increased efforts to identify needy children will likely increase the costs of providing those services. By 2023, the state estimates 3,600 children aged 3-5 would qualify.

Schools would have some flexibility around whether they would provide services directly or keep children with their current providers, said education department spokesperson Marcus Mrowka. But he conceded that the opinions of school administrators and state employees on such a transition have been underrepresented in the discussion so far, something state officials feel should be remedied as the plan is developed further.

There are benefits to shifting the program over, said Kathy Harris-Smedberg, the assistant superintendent for the Bangor School District. Students could become more comfortable with schools before entering them formally, and districts would have a better sense of their needs.

But even if the cost of the education was covered, the Bangor district would still need to consider if it has enough space and equipment for new children and staff, something the state needs to consider, she said.

“These things are not insurmountable. We would love to work with the children,” she said. “But we need to be thoughtful.”

Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, a co-chair of the Legislature’s education panel, said funding and transition questions must be addressed for the legislation to move forward. But he believes the state has created a workable proposal and said most concerns will probably fade if funding is nailed down. Whether they can be resolved before lawmakers are set to leave Augusta in mid-April is another story.

“Call me at the end of March,” he said.