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N.C. Law Change Would Limit Special-Ed. Requirements

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In North Carolina, a state often cited for its "progressive" moves in education, legislators are seeking to limit the scope of a 1977 state special-education law that reached beyond existing federal law in its provisions for exceptional children.

The law now requires the state to provide handicapped, gifted, and pregnant students with "a fair and full opportunity to reach their full potential" in education. An amendment proposed by an influential legislative committee chairman would rewrite it to require only that the state provide programs that enable such students to pass their courses and get promoted from grade to grade.

'Related Services' Required

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, P.L. 94-142, upon which laws like North Carolina's have generally been patterned, requires all states to provide children between the ages of 3 and 21 with a "free, appropriate public education." It also requires the states and school districts to provide handicapped students with "related services" they may need to take advantage of educational opportunities.

The federal law does not mention either gifted or pregnant students and does not use the expression "full potential."

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its first interpretation of provisions of P.L. 94-142, last summer ruled that a school district was not required to provide services sufficient to enable handicapped children to reach their "full potential."

In the case, Board of Education of the Hendrik Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the Court said the district did not have to provide a 4th-grade deaf student, Amy Rowley, with a sign-language interpreter. Her parents had argued, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had agreed, that even though Amy was a better-than-average student, the interpreter was needed to enable her to reach her full potential.

North Carolina legislators said last week that they are worried that the present language of the state's special-education law could draw the state into unending expenses from lawsuits in a time of severe funding shortages.

They added that they saw no need to exceed federal requirements for any special group of children.

One official suggested, for example, that supporters of gifted students could argue that the state must build additional high schools to enable North Carolina's estimated 60,000 gifted students to reach their "full potential." (The state opened a much-publicized boarding high school for talented mathematics and science students last year.)

Experts in education for the gifted said the North Carolina law is unusual in including gifted and talented children and pregnant girls in the category of "exceptional" children.

They said the amendment, if passed, would "more or less eliminate" any special state responsibility to provide special services for those groups and would curtail the rights of the handicapped to the level required by P.L. 94-142.

'Major Setback'

"It would be a major setback for special education and for the history of the State of North Carolina if this amendment is passed," said Frederick J. Weintraub, assistant executive director of government relations at the Council for Exceptional Children.

North Carolina is now considered a model for legislation for the gifted, he said.

The new action in North Carolina may also be the first in a series of retrenchments among states whose special-education laws go beyond the language of P.L. 94-142, Mr. Weintraub said.

Though some states have already sought to deregulate their special-education efforts, none has yet succeeded, he said. "But they're saying, 'If we're not absolutely forced by P.L. 94-142, why have it on our books?"' Mr. Weintraub said.

Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina has taken a national role in promoting education as chairman of the Education Commission of the States. The Governor does not have veto power over state legislation, and his office declined comment on the proposed amendment.

The new language being proposed for North Carolina's law reads: "Free appropriate publicly supported education includes personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction, and if the child is being educated in the regular classroom, should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade with the provision of such related or supportive services as may be required ..."

Representative William T. Watkins is the principal sponsor of the proposal. "When you get to gifted and talented children, we don't think the people of North Carolina owe them more than we do other children,'' he said. "We don't want a law mandating that we go to maximum potential."

Wording Reconsidered

The results of two lawsuits involving special education provoked them to reconsider the wording of the law, legislators said. One, Willie M. and others v. James B. Hunt Jr. and others, was a 1979 class action brought under P.L. 94-142 on behalf of severely retarded and disturbed children. In a consent-decree settlement, a federal district judge required the state to identify, classify, and provide education for about 800 previously unidentified children. The judge designated monitors to supervise what legislators say is a $20-million-a-year compliance effort, and they complain that the monitoring team includes no legislators.

"It's turned out there are many more of those youngsters than anyone thought," says Betty Owen, special-education advisor to the Governor. "The head count was considerably off. The same thing may happen with the gifted."

The second case, Harrell v. Wilson County Schools, was brought in state superior court by the parents of a North Carolina deaf child who attended a private school in Missouri.

They argued that she was eligible for North Carolina special-education funds.

Although the Harrells lost the case in superior court and lost their appeal in the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the appeals-court judge, in a ruling handed down a week after the Rowley decision, nevertheless affirmed the concept of providing services that allow exceptional children to reach their "full potential." That language disturbed state legislators.

'Sail Through' the Legislature

The new special-education amendment is expected to come before the appropriations committee in the next few weeks. Mr. Watkins is chairman of that committee. Another legislator, Representative Bertha M. Holt, said she expected the amendment to "sail through" the legislature.

Last week, a groundswell of opposition was beginning to rise among lobby groups for exceptional children. Carey S. Fendley, executive director of the Association for Retarded Citizens in Raleigh, said the amendment would bring on the very action the legislators most feared--lawsuits.

"It's a sweeping reduction in services," Mr. Fendley said.

"It'll result in more lawsuits than ever before."

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