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N.M. Proposal for Learning-Disabled Would Serve Fewer Students

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New Mexico--the only state that does not participate in federal special-education programs--is considering new statewide regulations that could significantly reduce the number of children classified as "learning-disabled."

About half of the state's 24,000 special-education students are in the learning-disabled category, one of nine special-education classifications, according to Elie Gutierrez, state director of special education. That number is "questionable," he said.

Learning-disabled students make up 4.8 percent of the state's student population, according to Mr. Gutierrez. On a national basis, according to U.S. Education Department figures, only 3 percent of all students are classified as learning-disabled.

The new regulations being developed by the state education department would institute a standardized measure of students' learning ability that critics charge would eliminate from special-education programs a substantial number of children who need them.

At least one major school district in New Mexico and an advocacy group for learning-disabled children question the value of the state and national special-education statistics. What matters, they argue, is that the new regulations would exclude up to half of the students who should be included.

The Albuquerque Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (aacld), a local chapter of a national advocacy organization, estimates that up to 10 percent of all school-age children have learning disabilities, according to Executive Secretary Elizabeth E. McGlone.

Figures Subject to Debate

Tony Espinosa, program coordinator for special education in the Albuquerque Public Schools East Area, said that both the state and national figures are subject to considerable debate among professionals in special education. "There are national figures ranging from 3 percent to 10 percent."

About half of the 4,000 learning-disabled children in his district who are currently receiving state aid would lose their eligibility under the proposed regulations, according to Mr. Espinosa.

Ms. McGlone agrees that the current proposals would exclude at least 50 percent of the students who "are truly learning-disabled."

But Mr. Gutierrez, arguing in favor of the proposals, points out that "we have very strong cultural and language differences here and we want to make sure the child with a language disability is not being mislabeled as learning-disabled."

Forty-two percent of the state's public-school students are Hispanic, 10 percent are Native American Indian and other groups, and 48 percent are Caucasian, he said.

The new proposals are also being questioned by an Albuquerque group called Children In Need of Basic Education, which supports "the regular child in the regular classroom." The group says it is concerned that the proposed regulations will place a number of "slow learners" in with "regular children," to the detriment of both.

"We do not feel slow learners should be labeled learning-disabled," said the group's president, Ellen F. Leninger, "but we feel a new category is needed for them."

Mr. Gutierrez said the higher cost to the state of educating learning-disabled children was not a factor in drafting the new proposals.

School districts receive $1,405 from the state for each child in their regular programs, Mr. Gutierrez said, but they can get an additional $1,405 for each learning-disabled student.

The proposed regulations contain what Mr. Gutierrez calls a "formula based on expectancy" for assessing whether a child is learning-disabled. The formula takes into account a student's I.Q. and standardized-test scores.

To be classified learning-disabled under the proposed regulations, a child with an I.Q. of 100, for example, would have to score 23 points below that on an accepted standardized test, according to the special-education official.

Under the current regulations, Mr. Gutierrez said, a child would qualify as learning-disabled only if he or she scored below the 10th percentile among students in the state--and did not fall into some other handicapping category.

Mr. Espinosa said the proposed system for classifying learning-disabled children would doubtless lower New Mexico's total number of such students. "A student with an I.Q. of 85 would have to make a 62 score on a simple test used to get a quick measure of intelligence." But many students who should be classified as learning-disabled would still not score that low and would be excluded if this formula were used, he noted.

"I've found that when you get to a student with an I.Q. below 90, the criteria are too stringent," Mr. Espinosa said. He has recommended that this part of the regulations be reconsidered.

Drafting New Regulations

The state department of education, with the help of written opinions from local school districts, public hearings, and a state special-education regulations advisory committee appointed by the state board of education, has been working for four years to draft the new regulations. The state is now using regulations drafted in 1973 and altered slightly in 1976, according to Mr. Gutierrez.

The proposals will be discussed further in the state department of education and then by the state board of education.

New Mexico is the only state that does not participate in federal special-education programs, which must comply with the requirements of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142, and its accompanying regulations.

The state board of education, after extensive public hearings, chose not to apply for federal special-education funds on the grounds that the budgeting, paperwork, and regulatory burdens would be excessive.

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