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Progress Slows in Special Education

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Washington--By 1978, three years after the enactment of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, school officials had successfully adopted most of the law's procedural safeguards, according to a federally-supported study of several school districts over a period of four years.

But by 1980, the report states, the pace of the expansion of special-education programs and services "slowed dramatically," as the school systems "struggled to maintain the status quo with fewer financial resources."

"A lack of resources in the last year or two has inhibited further progress in the development of high-quality, comprehensive special-education programs and services," contends the report, "Local Implementation of P.L. 94-142: Final Report of a Longitudinal Study."

"Thus, the effect of the law as an impetus to action is decreasing as fiscal restraints begin to dominate," the report notes.

Conducted by sri International, a California-based research organization, the study analyzes the results of interviews and on-site visits with officials from 22 school districts in nine states. The research covered the period from 1978 to 1982.

The final report is a compilation of findings from each year of the researchers' efforts. The four-year study was sponsored by the Education Department's office of special-education programs.

When the law was enacted in 1975, local school systems channeled their efforts into complying with the procedural provisions, such as the evaluation and individual-education-program requirements. "Once these procedures were put in place, they quickly became a familiar and routine part of special education," the researchers noted.

The major problem in this area, according to the researchers, was the large number of referrals. One district, they found, by 1980 had a backlog of 3,000 referrals.

Overall, the researchers suggest, the school systems studied had much greater difficulty meeting requirements under the related-services provision as their financial conditions worsened.

In the 1981-82 school year, the researchers found the "first evidence" of reductions in recently expanded special-education programs in addition to cuts in related services.

In rural areas, school officials had difficulties recruiting and retaining special-education staff members, and a few of the school systems failed to meet the full intent of the law, according to the researchers, because there was little parental pressure.

The researchers also found that school officials' placement decisions--based on the "least restrictive environment" provision of the law--rarely reflected the best choice available to them from a range of options.

The researchers also reported that little attention was given to inservice training for teachers despite a general consensus that training was important. "The fiscal restraints that interrupted expansion in programs and services during the past two years probably also inhibited the expansion of training," the researchers explained in the report.

Nevertheless, as a result of the school systems' incorporation of the law's provisions, and despite the financial problems, more handicapped children have been identified and helped than would have been without the federal law, according to the report.

That finding is supported in another report, "The Rights of Handicapped Students," prepared by the Law and Education Center of the Education Commission of the States (ecs).

The report notes that public schools routinely excluded handicapped children 10 years ago. Now, more than 4 million handicapped students receive special-education services.

In general, the sri researchers also found that school principals and regular teachers have become more aware of special education and more accepting of handicapped children.

"Although various factors interacted in unique ways in each site, we investigated the relative importance of P.L. 94-142, compared with other factors, in causing change in special education over the past four years," the researchers explained.

Law Enhanced Change

They concluded that in the absence of the handicapped-education law, other factors such as school characteristics, court suits, and state regulations would have been less effective in bringing about changes. The law enhanced change, they said, "largely because of the legitimacy it gave educators and parents of handicapped children (and in many cases, because of the money associated with it)."

The researchers argue that instead of being the catalyst it once was, the law is now becoming more important as a "tool" for holding on to the gains that have been made in serving handicapped children.

Copies of the report can be obtained at a cost of $13 from the Social Sciences Center, s.r.i. International, 333 Ravenswood Ave., Menlo Park, Calif. 94025.

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