Criticism Moves Bell To Withdraw Special-Ed. Rules
Washington--Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell told members of a House education panel last week that he would "withdraw for further study" six of the most controversial changes that the Reagan Administration has proposed making in federal regulations governing the education of handicapped children.
That act, however, did not fully satisfy members of the House Subcommittee on Select Education, who unanimously voted in favor of a bill calling on the full Congress to veto the proposed new regulations for the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, also known as P.L. 94-142.
The House Education and Labor Committee also voted unanimously in favor of the bill, HJ Res 558, late last week. Committee staff members predicted that the full House would consider the bill before it recessed for the November elections last Friday.
The six proposed changes that would be withdrawn, Mr. Bell said, include: those involving procedural safeguards; "least restrictive environment"; related services; timelines; meetings on individualized instruction programs; and qualifications of personnel.
But members of the subcommittee repeatedly asked Mr. Bell to clarify just what he meant by the word "withdrawal."
"Before we leave Washington [for an eight-week recess], we want to know whether these six areas are still open to changes," an angry Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, shouted at the Secretary.
Mr. Bell responded that he did not intend "to draft new language on these topics at present," but if he did, those changes would would be made public through a notice in the Federal Register.
Earlier in the hearing Mr. Bell said that "strong public criticism" led to the decision to withdraw the controversial sections of the Reagan Administration's proposal to revise the existing regulations for P.L. 94-142.
"Our rules have moved too far," he acknowledged. "We feel that it's time to make some alterations."
"There is a widespread impression that we have attempted to diminish the rights of handicapped students by proposing these changes," Mr. Bell told the subcommittee. "That has never been our intent."
The Secretary explained that the changes were proposed, in large part, in order to relieve state and local education agencies from bureaucratic burdens that the current regulations now impose upon them.
He acknowledged, however, that "local and state officials have been found at times not to be the most diligent defenders of the rights of the handicapped."
"I know better than to come here grousing about the need for more state and local control in education without mentioning that," he continued.
Mr. Bell told the House panel that the vast majority of those officials "are reasonable people" and that "they must be trusted."
"You will always find a few who will not do the right thing, but that's why there is an office for civil rights in the [Education] department to take care of such matters."
But Representative Miller pointed out that prior to the enactment of P.L. 94-142, it was those same state and local education officials who "did nothing for these children" and "kept them locked up in closets and basements."
"Don't forget that this law was passed for the benefit of these children, and not for the benefit of the officials," Representative Miller continued. "A law like this one makes life miserable for a bureaucrat. But when we passed it we took that factor into account, weighed it against the rights and needs of these children, and said 'the hell with this, the kids are worth more."'
'Trick' in Memo
Several other Congressmen attending the hearing added that they were not convinced that Mr. Bell's withdrawal of the controversial items did not represent an attempt by the Administration to win approval of the proposed changes by means of a "trick" outlined in an internal ed memo.
The memo, which was written by H. Joseph Beard Jr., a lawyer for the department, suggested that the Administration separate the controversial and noncontroversial sections of the proposed rules change into two packages and send them to the Congress for its approval at different times.
This tactic, Mr. Beard said in the memo, would allow the Administration to "divide the enemy."
"On the other hand," it continued, "Congress may find this to be a trick, which it definitely is, and may react negatively."
Mr. Bell told the committee that the memo did not represent official Administration policy, adding that Mr. Beard had been reprimanded for writing it.
"I have no hidden agenda here," he told the Congressmen. "I hope that you will not read into this any intentions that I do not have."
The Administration officially unveiled the proposed regulatory changes in the Aug. 4 edition of the Federal Register, but earlier drafts of the plan had been leaked to the public as early as last February. The proposal has run into strong opposition from educational and advocacy groups for the handicapped, and also from members in both houses of the Congress.
The opponents charge that the rewritten regulations, if adopted, would severely restrict the right of handicapped children to obtain "a free appropriate education" as guaranteed by the special-education law.
Initial criticism of the proposal was so strong that the Administration agreed to extend the period of public comment on it from the normal 30 days to 90 days. Secretary Bell also agreed to hold 11 public hearings around the country in order to gauge public sentiment on the proposed changes. Nine of those hearings have already been held.
The items that Mr. Bell has agreed to withdraw from the regulation proposal relate to:
Procedural safeguards. The proposed changes would delete a provision in current regulations that requires schools to conduct evaluations of handicapped children at least every three years. They would also delete a requirement ordering schools to receive parental consent before initially placing a handicapped student in a school program.
Least restrictive environment. The Administration's proposal would no longer require school officials to place handicapped students in schools closest to their homes. Nor would they be required to provide those students with "a continuum of alternative placements." A new provision would allow officials to consider the possible disruption of educational services provided to other students when considering the appropriateness of "mainstreaming" a handicapped student.
Related services. The proposed changes would narrow the definition of these services, which sometimes involve in-school health care.
Timelines. The Administration proposed relaxing the rules governing deadlines for the identification of a handicapping condition and for the development of individualized education programs.
Meetings on individualized education programs. The Administration proposed relaxing current regulations stipulating that certain professional evaluators be present at such meetings.
Qualifications of personnel. The proposal would relax existing rules that require inservice training for special-education personnel.
Mr. Bell told the committee members that final rule changes for P.L. 94-142 would not be published until mid-February at the earliest. He also said that the Education Department would continue accepting and reviewing public comments on the proposal.
He also promised that no final rules would be issued on topics involving the six withdrawn areas unless an additional notice of proposed rulemaking is published in the Federal Register.