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N.M. May Join Federal Program for Handicapped

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The House of Representatives of New Mexico, the only state in the country that does not participate in the federal program for handicapped students, has approved legislation that would force state education officials to reach out for the federal funding that is available.

The measure, which was ap3proved last week by a seven-vote margin, now must be approved by the Senate.

Last week, members of the Senate's education committee approved similar legislation, which would require the New Mexico Board of Education and the state superintendent of public instruction to apply for federal funds under P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.

Since 1976, the state has foregone more than $26 million in federal aid, according to estimates from the U.S. Education Department. Because it does not accept federal funds, the state is not bound by the provisions of the law that entitles handicapped children to a "free and appropriate" public education.

State Has Its Own Program

The state instead has its own special-education program, to which it contributed $72 million last year and will contribute an estimated $78 million this year. The state law is similar in many respects to the federal statute.

Over the years, one of the major deterrents to participation in the federal program has been the large proportion of small and rural school districts that have been unwilling to take on the required paperwork while receiving only a fraction of the costs in special education, state officials say.

Local school officials also have argued that the federal program would exacerbate the problem of finding qualified special-education teachers and other necessary professional support staff.

Although those arguments a-gainst the program still persist, many of the state's political leaders, especially Gov. Toney Anaya, say it would be unwise to continue to turn down federal support--no matter how small--for badly needed special-education services. Another factor in the push toward the federal program is that many of those who now favor the proposal were not in leadership positions in 1979 when the issue was last debated by the state board, including some of the board members.

During the 1982 school year, New Mexico enrolled 26,334 handicapped students, who represented about 8.8 percent of all public-school students in the state. This year, the state enrolled 30,641 handicapped students, about 12.4 percent of the public-school population.

Although the legislation is expected to be approved by the General Assembly and Governor Anaya, there is some question whether the state board will abide by the proposed mandate.

"The state board could comply and apply for the funds," said Luciano Baca, associate director of the Governor's office of education. "By the same token, they could fall back on a constitutional authority and say, 'This is an infringement,' and go to court to fight it."

"I doubt they would do that," Mr. Baca added, "but it is an option." Members of the state board and the superintendent, he explained, are elected public officials who have independent constitutional authority over the schools. The board's chairman and vice chairman were unavailable for comment last week.

Governor Anaya, according to Mr. Baca, has publicly criticized the state department of education's decision to abstain from participating in the federal program; during the past year, the Governor has urged the state board to reconsider.

Last year, the state legislature passed a bill directing the state board and the department to study the feasibility of joining the federal program, Mr. Baca said. "The department has not yet completed its study," he added, "so the policy drift is to delay action either way.''

"I don't think the department is dragging its feet," said Elie S. Gutierrez, director of special education for the state department of education. In fact, he said, the state board is scheduled to discuss the issue later this month.

He said opposition to the state's involvement in the federal program has come largely from officials in the smaller school districts. (Of the 88 school districts in New Mexico, 48 have enrollments of 1,000 students or fewer.) And the preliminary results of a statewide survey indicate "overwhelming opposition to P.L. 94-142 among local school boards," according to Mr. Gutierrez.

Most local school-board members fear that they would lose control of their programs because of federal regulations, he said. And they are concerned that they would be hard-pressed by the financial obligations posed by the "related-services" provision of the federal law.

According to Mr. Baca, the initial arguments that the federal program was too prescriptive and involved too much paperwork are no longer valid because state and federal requirements are similar.

The legislative committee's recent action, Mr. Baca said, sends "a strong message" to the state board that "it is time for New Mexico to participate."

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