Rural Educators Denounce Planned Revision of P.L.94-142
Murray, Ky.--Services to handicapped students living in rural areas would effectively be eliminated under the Reagan Administration's proposed funding cuts and changes in P.L.94-142, the 1975 law protecting the educational rights of all handicapped children, charged an alliance of 60 special-education teachers and administrators meeting here recently.
Founded last year by educators interested in improving services to rural handicapped students, the American Council on Rural Special Education (acres) held its second annual meeting at Murray State University in an atmosphere of discouragement, because, as participants from across the country charged, their projects will be the hardest-hit of all programs for handicapped students.
Speakers denounced the Reagan Administration's plans to reduce federal aid to their programs, to administer handicapped education through block grants, and to weaken accompanying regulations in its fiscal 1983 budget plan.
The President's proposal calls for aid to elementary and secondary special-education programs to be cut by 30 percent in 1983, from $2.14 billion in 1982 to $1.49 billion in 1983.
Along with the budget cuts, the President is proposing to administer special-education programs through state block grants and discretionary programs grants.
The Administration is also planning broad reductions in regulations. The changes would narrow the definition of handicapped children, reduce "due process" requirements, cut reporting and evaluation rules, and eliminate the "parental consent" requirement.
Rural students, acres members argued, will suffer more than their urban and suburban counterparts from these proposed changes for several reasons.
Handicapped children living in rural areas generally have more complex problems, studies have shown, because rural areas have had higher incidences of "handicapping conditions" than urban areas, and the conditions have been aggravated by past neglect, the educators said. Prior to the 1975 regulations, which required care of rural handicapped students, it was not cost-efficient to provide care for them and there was no federal requirement to do so, they added.
(There are 15 million students in rural areas, rural-education researchers say, and as many as 1.8 million of these may be handicapped. Differing definitions of "rural" and "handicapped" make this an inexact estimate, according to the researchers.)
A sparsely populated school district will often have only one or two students affected by a certain disability and requiring a specific program. In these cases, the educators said, the cost of providing special teachers, facilities, and transportation presents a much greater financial burden to a rural system than to a school district with a larger handicapped population to justify the expense.
When small school districts cannot justify the expense of educating these high-cost children, they sometimes choose to ignore the law, participants said.
For this reason, they added, they are especially fearful of one aspect of the Administration's proposal: the plan to shift the responsibility for enforcing compliance with regulations like those of P.L. 94-142 from the Education Department to the Justice Department.
The shift, they said, would have a particularly devastating effect on rural special-education programs, even if Congress is successful in blocking the President's other initiatives.
Under the plan, the Administration's proposed education foundation could request compliance of school districts that refuse to provide special-education services to students, but only the Justice Department would have the authority to bring suit against systems that ignore federal requirements.
"That's potentially very dangerous, because the reports that we see about voluntary [compliance] scare me," said Doris Helge, executive director of acres and an associate professor of special education at Murray State.
"We had a reason for getting the federal government [to pursue legal complaints]," she added. "When they're left alone, principals don't do it."
Ms. Helge cited a study she directed for the Education Department that concluded that most rural school administrators are unable or unwilling to maintain special-education programs without the spur of federal requirements.
Waiting Is Typical
"It is typical for [a school district] to wait for a mandate saying education must be improved, and P.L. 94-142 has been the only type of motivation which would have created real special-education programs," the report quoted one administrator as saying.
Ms. Helge added that the study, which was based on random interviews with school administrators across the country, also found a 92-percent increase in the number of students brought into rural special-education programs as a result of the 1975 law.
Despite these concerns, council members said Congress has become more responsive to the needs of students in small communities. Rural groups are speaking out more effectively now, Ms. Helge said, pointing out that the Congressional Rural Caucus has increased its membership by 33 percent in the the last year. And recent Census reports, she said, show a continuing migration from the cities to the country.
The "rural renaissance" that such changes may signal, the rural educators said, could provide the strength needed to turn back the Reagan initiatives.