The state is moving forward with a study that could give local school districts the responsibility of providing special education services for preschool children.

Child Development Services, a division of the Maine Department of Education, currently oversees special education services for children under age 6, but budgetary and other concerns have recently prompted lawmakers to look at alternative models.

Legislation introduced this year calls for the elimination of Child Development Services, with services for infants and toddlers under age 3 moving to another area of the department and services for 3- to 5-year-olds moving to local districts.

But first lawmakers are seeking to understand what the impact of such changes would be and get a better grasp on how Maine’s special education services for young children compare to other states.

On Monday, a legislative advisory committee will meet to finalize recommendations for an independent review of special education services that will then go to the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. The review is estimated to cost between $200,000 and $250,000.

“We want to get some recommendations so we can redesign the program to best suit the needs of our families,” said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, a member of the education committee who sponsored a bill last session calling for the review. “Right now, I don’t think either system has worked particularly well,” he added.

“Just throwing them into public schools I don’t think is the answer, especially in areas with limited numbers of special ed professionals. By the other token, I’m not sure a centralized system like we currently have works well when you have a district with plenty of resources.”

Proponents of L.D. 1715, which is being carried over from the last session, say moving services to schools would help streamline what’s available and increase access because schools already have specialists and transportation services in place.

But questions remain about how schools would fund the additional services, whether districts have space in their buildings for more children, the ability to find specialists needed and whether schools have the appropriate buses and drivers to transport young children.

CDS provided services for about 2,100 children ages 3 to 5 in 2018, but the department has regularly run over its $30 million annual budget for the services due to flat state funding and the rise of special education costs.

State offices were closed Friday, and Roy Fowler, state director of Child Development Services and a member of the advisory committee, did not respond to an email seeking an interview.

In the 128th Legislature, a similar bill prompted calls at a public hearing to slow the process down and further explore funding and how the school districts would be better suited than CDS to provide the services.

Legislation passed this year called for the independent group to report preliminary study findings to the education committee by April 1 and final findings by Dec. 1.

Rep. Joyce “Jay” McCreight, D-Harpswell, the sponsor of L.D. 1715, said while the review would likely delay her proposal, it is a step in the right direction toward ensuring young children are getting the services they need.

“I’m excited we, as a Legislature, are moving forward in many ways in looking at this important issue,” she said. “Having this review happen and having the bill carried over show a willingness to get it done and follow through on what we know needs to be done.”

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