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Advocacy Groups Contest Proposed Voc. Ed. Rules

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Recent attempts by the Department of Education to write new rules that would deregulate the Vocational Education Act (vea) of 1963 have prompted a "firestorm" of reaction from women, strenuous complaints from advocacy groups for disadvantaged and handicapped students, and controversy within the department itself, according to department officials.

So "hot" is one provision of the deregulation proposal, that publication of the new rules in the Federal Register--which has been delayed once and is now scheduled for Feb. 25--may be delayed again, officials said. But the result, commented one, will be "the most thoroughly debated regulations package that I am familiar with."

At issue is a provision of the current vea regulations known as the ''excess-cost requirement," which governs how federal money "set aside" for the vocational training of handicapped and disadvantaged students may be spent.

The requirement has been eliminated in the deregulation proposal submitted to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell by the office of vocational and adult education, but Secretary Bell has not decided whether to approve the change, department sources said last week.

The requirement specifies that the federal funds "set aside" for the training of handicapped or academically and economically disadvantaged students may be used only to support the extra costs the students incur. The money could offset the cost of a sign interpreter for a deaf student, for example. The federal "set aside" funds must be matched by state and local monies.

Eliminating the requirement would allow these funds, still matched by state and local money, to support the full cost of the students' education.

The "full-cost" position is supported by the American Vocational Association, the National Association of State Directors of Vocational Education, and a number of chief state school officers, as well as federal vocational education officials.

In general, the supporters of "full cost" argue that assessing the "excess costs" of handicapped or disadvantaged students who participate in regular vocational programs is a major accounting burden, and therefore fosters the segregation of such students in special programs. (Under the current regulations, the entire cost of separate programs can be treated as "excess cost.")

The "too-specific" federal reporting and accounting requirements for small amounts of money are a burden imposed by the excess-cost rule, said James Galloway, president of the state directors' association.

For example, he said, it might make sense to mainstream a student for some classes, but not for others. Determining "excess cost" in such a situation, or in the case of a handicapped student in a regular program who needs special tools, would involve complicated accounting procedures and verification problems.

As a result, he said, some districts do not bother to seek federal money for the services they provide for students with special needs--or they do not provide the support services they would if the federal money were easier to claim, he said. Students and local vocational programs would benefit from the elimination of the rule, he added.

Opponents of the change, however--including Clarence Thomas, assistant secretary for civil rights, officials in the department's office ofspecial education and rehabilitative services, and advocacy groups--argue that to eliminate the excess-cost rule, especially in a time of declining resources, would mean that fewer students with special needs would be served by the federal money; that the matching incentive for state and local agencies to provide special services for them would be eliminated; that fewer students would be mainstreamed; and that women and minority students would be disproportionately affected.

They contend that state and local vocational-education agencies would simply use the vea matching funds to pay for a handicapped or disadvantaged student's participation in a regular vocational program that does not provide support services. Currently, such costs must be paid entirely out of state and local revenues.

Mr. Thomas has submitted a memo to Secretary Bell objecting to the change, but department officials declined to discuss its contents. Last week, however, the office of vocational and adult education was preparing a "rebuttal memo," department sources said.

In a letter that was to reach Secretary Bell last week, William L. Robinson, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, contended that dropping the excess-cost requirement would encourage local educational agencies to "abandon financial responsibility" for vocational training for special-needs students.

Opportunities Lost

"As fewer dollars become available for special services (such as remedial basic education), hundreds of thousands of students would lose opportunities for school-based vocational education. A disproportionate number of those eliminated would be minorities. At least half would be females, at a time when increases in the national poverty rate are seen among women and female-headed households," the letter says.

Citing findings of a four-year study of vocational education conducted by the National Institute of Education, Mr. Robinson states that "allowing states to pay 100 percent of the cost of programs for the disadvantaged and handicapped out of the set-asides will not alleviate the segregation of such students. In fact it will promote it."

It is "ironic," the letter states, that the department would propose to eliminate the excess-cost requirement "under the guise that to do so would promote the mainstreaming" of the students. The lawyers' committee also recommends eliminating the department's policy of allowing federal matching funds to be used for the full cost of separate programs.

Jane A. Razeghi, of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, says that the excess-cost requirement--because it provides an incentive for vocational programs to offer special services to disabled students--is essential to the "participation of handicapped students in vocational education."

The coalition, which represents 125 organizations for the disabled, estimates that elimination of the requirement would reduce the number of handicapped students receiving vocational education by 50 percent.

Although figures showing the total number of students who would be affected are not readily available, the Education Department data show that at least 227,000 handicapped young people and adults received vocational education in 1979-80.

The Education Department's new deregulation proposal also would:

Allow states to apply for adjustments in matching federal funds for handicapped and disadvantaged students;

Reduce some reporting and recordkeeping requirements;

Eliminate the current prohibition against state-board personnel serving on or as staff for state advisory councils on vocational education. (The current regulation states that the prohibition "is intended to avoid any conflict of interest.")

Eliminate membership requirements for state and local advisory councils not specified by the law. (The vea requires "appropriate representation" of women and minorities, as well as other membership categories, on state-level councils, but current regulations further specify that such representation must reflect the "percentage of women or minorities" in the state's population or its workforce.)

Eliminate responsibilities of the sex-equity personnel that are required by current regulations but not by the vocational-education law.

Changes Criticized

In these proposed rules, advocacy-group spokesmen have criticized the changes affecting who may serve on state and local vocational advisory councils.

Michael L. Brustein, a specialist in education law and formerly chief of vocational and adult education in the general counsel's office at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, contended that allowing state-board personnel to serve on the state advisory councils is a "clear conflict of interest" tantamount to "advising yourself, which is not the function of the advisory councils."

"It's clear to me from the legislative history that the councils must be autonomous," added Mr. Brustein, who is a member of the District of Columbia's council.

Several spokesmen for women's groups, including Tracy Huling, who chairs the Full Access and Rights to Education Coalition in New York City, said that allowing states to determine what constitutes "appropriate representation of women and minorities" and eliminating all requirements for local councils would violate "clear Congressional intent" to ensure representation of women's and minorities' interests.

Past performance indicates, said Mr. Brustein, that "when discretion is given to the states, they don't act upon it."

Education Department officials maintain that the department is in "sympathy" with the intent of the current regulations concerning the councils, but that the federal requirements are not warranted by the law.

The latest draft regulations, however, have already been adjusted in response to complaints, in the form of "hundreds" of letters, said officials, about a proposed change in the rules on sex equity--a major focus of the vea

An early draft of the deregulation proposal, which circulated among Washington education lobbyists in December and was made available to Education Week, appeared to dilute the role of states' sex-equity coordinators by suggesting that the position did not have to be full time.

That proposal sparked a "strategy of immediate reaction," women's advocates said--including a meeting with Robert M. Worthington, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, discussion of lawsuits, and what one lawyer described as a nationwide "orchestrated letter-writing campaign."

The women's groups contended that, by allowing the mandated responsibilities for sex equity to be "dispersed" among a number of people who had other responsibilities, the department was ignoring the clear intent of the law to require a full-time coordinator. They argued that the change would significantly diminish efforts to promote equity in vocational education.

The department's deregulation proposal now specifies that state education agencies must continue to employ full-time equity coordinators, the education officials said, but it allows other sex-equity personnel to be part time.

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