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Handicapped Groups May Force Bell To Shelve Changes in Vocational Ed.

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Washington--In order to avoid further offending advocacy groups for the handicapped, the Education Department (ED) may back off from part of its plan to revise regulations governing a federal vocational-education program.

According to ed sources, "the beating that the department took" after proposing to ease certain regulations for the Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, also known as P.L. 94-142, "will have an effect" on the final disposition of a controversial deregulatory proposal involving the Vocational Education Act (VEA) of 1963.

The section of the vea deregulatory plan that has drawn criticism from the handicapped-rights advocates would eliminate an existing rule that restricts the use of federal funds earmarked for the vocational training of handicapped and disadvantaged youth to cover only the "excess cost" involved in educating such people.

The basic cost of educating these students is borne by the states, and federal funds are limited to such expenditures as those for sign-language interpreters for the deaf and special tools for the physically handicapped.

Currently, local vocational-education officials must keep a separate set of books on the expenditure of these "set-aside" funds. The deregulatory proposal would allow states to use them to help cover the full cost of educating such students.

Late last month, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, acknowledging that the Reagan Administration's proposed rules have "moved too far," bowed to intense public pressure and "withdrew for further study" six of the most controversial sections of ed's plan to deregulate P.L. 94-142. (See Education Week, Oct. 6, 1982.)

The ed sources said that the same coalition of parents, educators, and lobbyists that forced Mr. Bell to back down on the P.L. 94-142 proposal might force him to withdraw part of the vea deregulation plan before publishing it in the Federal Register.

The proposed new vocational-education regulations, which were first circulated within the department almost one year ago, probably will not be published until the end of November at the earliest, according to the sources.

'Final Touches'

A. Neal Shedd, the director of ED's regulations management division, said last week that department officials are now putting the "final touches" on a set of briefing documents that will accompany a draft of the deregulatory proposal when it is sent to Mr. Bell.

"There are a number of issues that department officials differ on regarding this proposal, and that's something quite normal," Mr. Shedd said. "We want all sides of this issue to be presented to the Secretary before he makes his final decision."

If Mr. Bell decides to amend or approve the proposal, it will then be sent to the Office of Management and Budget for final clearance before being published, Mr. Shedd said.

According to a copy of the internal briefing papers that is dated Sept. 10, officials in ed's office of vocational and adult education recommend the elimination of the excess-cost requirement because they say it imposes a "substantial accounting burden" on local education officials.

The federal vocational-education officials also argue that the current regulation fosters the continued segregation of handicapped and disadvantaged students because local officials can place them in "special" programs separate from other students and write off the price of those programs as an excess cost.

Despite those arguments, the new set of regulations has met with strong opposition from handicapped-rights advocates and officials in ED's own offices for civil rights and special education and rehabilitative services.

According to the briefing papers, opposition within the two ed offices to the excess-cost proposal has been so strong that "this issue could not be resolved" over the past year "although several attempts have been made."

In an internal ED memo dated Dec. 21, 1981, officials in the department's special-education office argued against the proposed change, noting that "the elimination of the 'excess cost' requirement and allowance of full-cost coverage would significantly reduce the number of handicapped [students] who could benefit" from the federal vocational-education monies.

In the memo, written by William D. Halloran of the department's special-education office to Thomas L. Johns in the department's vocational-education office, the special-education officials said the argument that the elimination of the excess-cost provision would promote "mainstreaming" of handicapped students "has not been substantiated."

They cited a recent review of 1979-80 school-year enrollment information collected by the department that indicated that 77 percent of all handicapped students reported as enrolled in vocational education "were participating in regular voca-tional-education programs."

The memo concluded that "there continues to be disproportional representation of handicapped individuals" in regular vocational-education programs, but that most of those who are enrolled in them "are benefiting from ... the provision of additional support services."

Arguments Offered

Similar arguments were offered against the proposal in a Jan. 26, 1982, memo from Clarence Thomas, the former director of ED's civil-rights office, to A. Neal Shedd, the director of the department's division of regulations management.

Mr. Thomas, who now chairs the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, cited in his memo the findings of a nine-state survey conducted by his office to determine the effects of removing the excess-cost provision.

The states--California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin--"enroll slightly less than one-third of all vocational-education students nationwide, including 788,000 disadvantaged and handicapped students," he said. If the proposed change were enacted, state vocational-education officials projected that 390,000 handicapped and disadvantaged students "might not be served."

"Projected nationally," Mr. Thomas continued, "this means that almost 1,250,000 handicapped and disadvantaged students may be removed from the regular vocational-education curriculum due to the absence of the excess-cost requirement."

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