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Illinois Ponders Cutting Special-Education Rules

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Springfield, Ill--Special-interest groups in Illinois, wary of altering requirements that protect the rights of the handicapped, are resisting a move by the state board of education to reduce special-education regulations and to curb red tape for local school districts.

The state board's committee on policy and planning held the first of two public hearings last week on recommendations contained in a preliminary staff report on special-education mandates. Education officials hope to enact such changes for their state and then to lobby for similar changes in the federal laws governing education of the handicapped.

Among the staff report's recommendations were:

Eliminating the requirement that handicapped children be taught in the least restrictive environment;

Ending categorizations of handicaps as a means of placing students in special-education classes;

Changing the process for developing individual education plans to grant more flexibility to local administrators; and

Allowing local educators to determine class size for special-education courses.

Deputy Superintendent Nelson Ashline said Illinois officials will work through their Congressional delegation to amend the federal law that dictates state regulations. He also said that in some instances--for example, in the case of individual education plans--state authorities believe they have some latitude in implementing the broad directives of federal law.

He also pointed to a recent federal-court decision in Pennsylvania, which held that a child in a special-education facility did not have to be mainstreamed.

"So what the judge is saying," Mr. Ashline noted, "is that you can't equate the fuzzy mainstreaming mandate with the importance of a child learning basic skills. These laws may be very vulnerable."

Overturning Gains

Although local officials applauded the report, and some of the recommendations received qualified support from groups representing special-education interests, the preponderance of testimony suggested the state board was attempting to overturn nearly two decades of hard-fought gains for the handicapped.

"The burden of proof is on the state board of education to show that ... means other than mandates will be successful," Walter Freeman, director of the Land of Lincoln Chapter of the United Cerebral Palsy Society told the committee.

"I am convinced that the same pressures which worked to deny special-education services to handicapped children in 1963 [when the push began in Illinois to require such programs] would work to reduce or eliminate many of the services that are provided today if the mandate is repealed or relaxed," said Oscar Weyl, lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

And the mother of a five-year-old epileptic girl told board members, "I can guarantee you from personal experience that without these necessary regulations, many school districts will choose the easiest way out."

State officials said they anticipated a "pa-rade of special interests seeking to guard their territory."

"Much of the testimony related to protecting their turf," said G. Howard Thompson, chairman of the committee. "I was disappointed we didn't hear more constructive criticism."

According to State Superintendent of Education Donald G. Gill, "A substantial portion of the testimony was very self-serving. We knew we would get much of that--don't touch [the mandates] or make [them] stronger."

Both Mr. Gill and Mr. Thompson said they were not discouraged and noted that several speakers endorsed at least a part of the report. The testimony, they said, gave them something to work with in preparing final recommendations to go to the full board late this spring.

Expressing his commitment to the effort, Mr. Gill said, "We must work toward more flexibility in the things we require of local school districts."

"If the state is not providing primary financing of education--and we're not--there is no way local districts can do all these things," Mr. Thompson added. "There are just too many things that have been dumped on them by the General Assembly, the courts, the state board of education, and the Congress."

That was a theme echoed by local officials who supported the preliminary plan.

'Exceeded our Grasp'

"The only reason people are attacking the mandates is that we can't live up to them," one superintendent said. "The commitment has exceeded our grasp, our ability, and our resources to meet it."

And yet those fearful of retreat said they remembered that not too long ago even the commitment was missing.

"It was really parents in the 1950's, not the professionals, who felt these children could learn, and they set up church-based programs in store-front operations to teach them," Elaine Hoff of the Illinois Association for Retarded Citizens.

Becky Kirk of Decatur, a parent whose daughter attends special-education classes, told the committee, "I hope that you will carefully consider any possible changes. It has taken parents, advocates, and special educators years to get education legislation for children with handicaps.

"Now, we are in an economic crunch, and too much could be lost for all the wrong reasons."

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