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Analysts Advise Against Deregulation

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A number of special services that enable handicapped students to participate in special-education programs could become discretionary items among financially pressed states--many of which have already considered their elimination--as a consequence of the Reagan Administration's deregulation efforts, according to a survey by the Rand Corporation.

In view of that finding, the report's authors conclude that the Administration should not deregulate "nonexpendable" services required by P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

The report, entitled, "Making Programmatic Decisions During a Time of Fiscal Retrenchment: The Case of Related Services for Handicapped Youth," was conducted for the Education Department.

The related-services provision of that law, controversial because of its "open-ended" definition, according to the report, was targeted for deregulation earlier this year by the department. But, in reponse to a deluge of public criticism, the proposed provision was among several withdrawn by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell earlier this month. New proposals are not expected until next year.

School districts are required to provide any noninstructional service considered necessary to enable handicapped students to benefit from special education, under the related-services provision. Included among those services are speech and hearing therapy, physical and occupational therapy, early identification and assessment of handicaps, counseling, medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes, and transportation.

Such services, according to the report, are likely to be curtailed or eliminated in many states because they are "perceived as fringe or noncentral activities."

In conducting the survey, the authors interviewed about 120 state and local special-education administrators and advocates for the handicapped from 16 states, selected on the basis of their interest in special education, sources of general education revenue, geographic location, and number of handicapped students.

Reduced Mandate

Under a reduced federal mandate, the report notes, officials from only about six of the states surveyed believe they would continue most of the related services that are now required by law.

In the nine states that had their own special-education laws in place prior to the federal law, the report notes that the respondents said they would "at a minimum" restrict the services they provide to those offered prior to the passage of P.L. 94-142, "if allowed by the courts and proposed regulations."

All of the officials suveyed said that their states currently are experiencing difficulty providing support services mandated under P.L. 94-142, according to the survey report.

The survey report notes that since the P.L. 94-142 went into effect, the number of handicapped children in special-education programs has increased by 19 percent, from about 3.4 million in 1976 to more than 4 million in 1980. During the same period, student enrollment in public schools declined by 9 percent overall.

Citing earlier studies, the report explained that federal support, about $874.5 million in 1980, represented less than 9 percent of the estimated $10 billion in expenses for special-education programs and related services incurred by states and districts since the law went into effect.

"Thus, special education is expanding while federal funds in support of this program fail to expand and may be cut as inflation reduces the purchasing power of expenditures," the report adds.

The report asserts that a majority of the states are likely to curtail services that are the most expensive and those that are considered ''least educational," rather than develop cost-effective strategies so that they may be continued. Although the problem varies from state to state, according to the survey, the Rand researchers suggest that it is less severe if four key factors are present:

State commitment and support for special education. "Study respondents who felt that their special-education programs enjoyed strong support were generally more optimistic about the future of their related services program than respondents who did not perceive strong support," the report noted. Half of the state officials believed they had the support of their legislature and executive branch.

Such states, the report asserted, are likely to make special education a high priority. "In a time of increased competition for scarce resources, strong commitment may be necessary to ensure any program's future," the report explained.

Strong and vocal advocates and special-interest groups. Such groups have successfully pressured reluctant local education agencies into providing services, according to the report, and can "ameliorate the curtailment of related services to the handicapped youth."

Respondents in at least six of the states said that due-process proceedings "played a significant role in shaping related-services programs." Advocates for the handicapped in these states "remain sufficiently strong to continue to be a force in shaping the programs," the report explained.

A "balanced state approach" to providing related services. The report found that in only about three of the states surveyed do the education agencies and social services agencies share responsibility for deciding upon and providing related services.

The report notes that these states have been able to overcome the institutional constraints that other state officials described. In these states, the report asserts, "influential state decisionmakers" recognized that special education and related services are not the responsibility of the education community alone.

The integration of special education with other state activities. A few states offered evidence of having meshed some aspect of their programs for handicapped students with other state programs.

"By so doing, the state's special-education program becomes incorporated into the standard state practice; it is no longer a federal program that has been imposed on the states," the report explained. As a result, states that have incorporated special-education programs will have a greater probability of continuing despite a reduced federal mandate.

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