A bill that seeks to drastically reconfigure Maine’s early childhood special education system is moving rapidly through the Legislature.

The effort, spearheaded by the Department of Education, would directly impact Maine’s youngest children with special needs, their families and those who educate them.

For years, the state agency responsible for educating children with disabilities before they enter into the K-12 school system has been failing to do its job, leaving Maine’s youngest children with disabilities without the services they need and have a legal right to.

The Education and Cultural Affairs committee voted this month that the bill, which would transfer that responsibility to individual school districts, ought to pass. Ten legislators voted in favor of the bill. One, Sheila Lyman, R-Livermore Falls, voted against it.

“With difficulty and a lot to say that I won’t, ought not to pass,” Lyman said.

The bill now heads to the House for a floor vote.


L.D. 345 would change the trajectory of early childhood special education in Maine. Educators, activists and legislators all agree that it’s time to overhaul Child Development Services and that the plan on the table is solid. But concerns remain about staff shortages and the timeline of these drastic changes.

School leaders and lawmakers haven’t had much time to consider the bill. The broad concept was introduced by the Department of Education in early February and a bill was written, commented on by the public and workshopped in just over a month.

The urgency stems from years of underperformance that was highlighted late last year when CDS employees voted that they had no confidence in the agency’s director, Roberta Lucas, pointing to long wait times for children in need of services and a “toxic work culture.”


Under federal law, children are entitled to a “free and appropriate public education.” That means that all children should have access to the same education and receive any services or support they need to participate fully in that education.

That right starts as soon as children are born and lasts until they reach 22 years of age.


For decades, CDS has been in charge of ensuring Maine children receive those services starting at birth and until they reach the K-12 school system.

But the Department of Education and many lawmakers want to change the structure of CDS. The bill being considered now would require schools to provide disability services for children ages 3 to 4; expand eligibility requirements for children from birth to 3 years to get services; and create a support network to assist schools. The state would pay school districts the cost of providing these services through a funding formula similar to that used to fund K-12 school districts.

The transition for schools would play out over four years. Districts that are ready to take on that task could speed up that timeline.

Any districts that believe they can’t take on this task within four years can request an extension or work with the department to offer modified services.


Despite general agreement that this plan moves the state in the right direction, some school leaders are concerned that the four-year timeline is too fast, especially for districts that don’t currently offer any pre-K programming.


The Gorham School District offers half-day pre-K to all students, serving 59 students at one of its elementary schools and another 34 through partnerships with private preschools.

Superintendent Heather Perry said the district already works with CDS to serve its pre-K students with special needs and it has been going well.

“CDS has been a wonderful partner,” she said.

“But the timeline is a little aggressive for 3- and 4-year-olds, even for us.”

Ultimately, she believes serving 3-year-olds at the local level will be beneficial, but she’s worried about creating thoughtful and successful programming for 3-year-olds within the timeline. It took years of studying and running pilot programs to launch the pre-K program it has now, Perry said.

Craig King, the superintendent in Gray-New Gloucester, shares those concerns.


“Philosophically, serving this population of CDS youngsters at the local school and close to home is beneficial,” King said. “However, there is a big gap between the desire to provide these services at the local school and having a functioning system in place.”

King is concerned about accessing physical space to serve more students, and finding skilled teachers, education technicians and other special education professionals.

Benjamin Greenlaw also is worried about finding enough educators. He’s the superintendent of Presque Isle schools in northern Maine, a region where districts are struggling to find enough people to staff their schools.

“Big picture, I think there’s a world in which this might be productive and effective for us and our students,” Greenlaw said. “But we have concerns about staffing, funding, transportation and space allocation.”

The state is proposing tackling these concerns by having CDS (in its new form) work with local school districts and private preschool providers. The idea is to combine resources – space, money and people – so that many organizations can come together to succeed where CDS alone failed.

In this model, school districts that don’t have the physical space to open up a pre-K classroom could partner with a local public or private preschool that has classrooms available. A private provider that can’t find enough teachers due to low pay could get support from the local public school district to hire at a higher rate.

“There is no panacea for addressing all of the challenges that our education system faces, and we are not presenting a complete and immediate solution,” Courtney Belolan, the Department of Education’s director of policy and government affairs, said in written testimony.

But the plan, she said, would allow the state to begin to fix its broken special education system for young children.

“The transition plan allows for flexible problem-solving,” she said. “Allowing us to keep the best interests of the children at the forefront of decision making.”

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