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 Article of Interest - Special Education

'Modest' Changes Seen for Special Education
by Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times, September 28, 2002
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A year ago, Republicans and Democrats seemed to be girding for a showdown over special education.

Prompted by the White House refusal to pay the full federal share of special education costs, Senator James M. Jeffords, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee, quit his party and became an independent, swinging power in the Senate to the Democrats. Advocates for disabled children feared that a presidential commission on special education would issue not a report, but a withering critique tearing special education to shreds.

But as the House and Senate prepare to take up reauthorization of the special education law early next year, members of each party appear to have climbed down from the ramparts, and their talk is more of consensus than conflict. Rather than reinvent special education with a raft of tough new federal laws, as they did for general education last year, lawmakers are talking of compromise and a piecemeal approach to change.

"The temperature's been lowered quite a bit," said Representative George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Given the sweeping changes to elementary and secondary education in the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Miller predicted that the coming changes to special education "will be more modest."

While neither the Bush administration nor lawmakers have entirely embraced the presidential commission's report, which was released in July, its suggestions have become the springboard for discussions among policy makers about the future of special education, which serves 6.5 million children nationally at a cost of $78 billion a year.

"We're too focused on the process, and not enough on outcome," said Robert H. Pasternack, the federal assistant secretary for special education, echoing the report.

The report concluded that while the 1975 special education law succeeded in establishing the right to an education for all disabled children, the quality of the instruction was often poor. Misidentification of children was common, and education plans were largely driven by the fear of lawsuits.

The commission proposed treating all but the most severely handicapped children as general education students who need extra services, rather than as a separate category of children altogether.

The report builds on last year's education law, which requires disabled students to take the same standardized tests as other students. Schools where most disabled children chronically fail to make adequate progress on those tests face severe penalties that could include closing them down.

While teaching handicapped and nondisabled children in the same classrooms, known as mainstreaming, is not new, the current discussions seek to break down other barriers separating the two groups.

In Long Beach, Calif., a model of the administration's goals, teachers assigned to handicapped children coach all students who appear to be having trouble.

The approach is best summed up by Judy Elliott, who has retooled Long Beach's special education system in her three years as assistant superintendent.

"If you focus on educating the kids," Dr. Elliott said, "compliance will take care of itself."

Advocacy groups support the report's call for getting help to children earlier, but say they are concerned by some of its other recommendations. They criticized the commission for its silence on what is becoming the thorniest issue among lawmakers and advocates: how to handle handicapped students who act up in class. One proposal in Congress would remove special protections for handicapped children, allowing schools to swiftly expel those who are disruptive.

Paul Marchand, head of the national Association for Retarded Citizens, said he was dismayed that the commission did not support full federal financing for special education, but that it did propose a voucher system for handicapped students. "Where is the money going to come from?" Mr. Marchand asked.

Nevertheless, the call for vouchers, which would allow disabled children to attend private schools at will, appears to be losing support.

Representative Michael N. Castle, Republican of Delaware, said that special education law already allows parents to send handicapped children to private schools at public expense, if the public schools cannot provide services the children need.

Despite support in the House and the Senate for gradually raising the federal contribution to special education to the 40 percent maximum level cited in the current law, the administration has so far balked. Instead, it has asked for a $1 billion increase for special education in next year's budget, to $8.5 billion, promoting it as the largest single-year increase in special education aid.

The commission also proposed a federal pool of money to pay for severely disabled children, whose education costs up to $100,000 a year, and can break a small school district's budget an idea that Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee, said "makes a lot of sense" for small states.

Dr. Elliott contends that vouchers would be disastrous for Long Beach and many other districts. In general, private special education services cost slightly more than twice as much as the same services in a public school setting.

When Dr. Elliott came to Long Beach three years ago, she set about redesigning the special education program from the classroom up. She moved Long Beach away from what is commonly called the "waiting to fail" model, which assesses children only after they have failed for several years, instead getting tutoring and other intensive help to them in the earliest grades.

Long Beach created classes with intensive instruction in reading and math for handicapped and general education students.

Rodney Prince, a special education teacher at Jane Addams Elementary here, said his official caseload was a dozen handicapped children. He used to pull them out of the classrooms to work on reading. Now, he and other special education teachers go into classrooms that mix general and special education students. "I work with a hundred kids," he said. "Whoever's having trouble."

The changes have won the grudging respect of some parents, bruised by years of having to fight administrators for services.

"I won't give you 100," Tuesday Miles, whose son has cerebral palsy, told Dr. Elliott in a meeting with parents recently, "but I'll give you an 80."

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