E.D. Enforces Handicapped-Aid Ceiling; Cuts Massachusetts Grant, Asks Refund
Washington--For the first time in the history of the federal special-education law, Education Department officials have denied some funding to a state on the grounds that its "count" of handicapped pupils exceeds a limit specified by the law.
With no advance notification or publicity, the department has cut more than $1.5 million from Massachusetts' 1986 special-education grant--and is asking to be reim-
bursed for $676,256 granted in 1985--because it says the state's "child count" in both years exceeded a ceiling set a decade ago by drafters of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.
P.L. 94-142, which became law in 1975, specifies that the number of special-education students receiving federal aid in a state may not exceed 12 percent of that state's total 5- through 17-year-old population, even if the state's own special-education law covers a wider population.
But as federal officials pledged last week to continue the department's increased scrutiny of enrollments and population figures, officials in Massachusetts and elsewhere urged a re-examination of the law in light of the realities facing state special-education programs.
Massachusetts, they predicted, will soon be joined by other states whose expanding special-education populations are ineligible for federal aid.
According to Education Department figures, four states--Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, and New Jersey--have already reached the 11 percent mark.
States annually submit child-count figures to the Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services, where they are used to calculate the amount of money the state will receive for special-education grants under P.L. 94-142.
The fiscal-year 1986 grants were distributed in July. Until recently, the disbursement of funds has apparently been a routine process. But the dramatic growth in special-education enrollments over recent years, Education Department officials said, prompted them to institute a closer check of the figures.
Patricia Guard, acting deputy director of the department's special-education programs, said that during the awards process for 1986 grants this year her office issued the first request for verification by the National Center for Education Statistics of how near each state was to the 12-percent maximum.
The office will continue to closely monitor future child counts to enforce the 12-percent cap, she said.
But Ms. Guard also predicted that, because the major growth area in special education is the learning-disabled category, states nearing the 12 percent limit will increasingly seek ways to serve such children in regular classrooms, thus curtailing the growth in designated special-education populations. (See related story on this page.)
Questions on Method, Impact
Meanwhile, however, directors of state special-education programs are questioning both the way nces calculates the total-population figure and the impact the 12-percent-ceiling enforcement will have on efforts by the states to serve a wider range of age groups than those specified in the law.
They note that Madeleine C. Will, the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, has encouraged states to provide more adult-transition and early-childhood services for the special-education population.
"We need to look at the way the 12 percent is arrived at," said Martha J. Irvin, director of special education for the Maryland Department of Education.
"We want to make sure the law isn't, on one hand, building incentives for over-identification, and, on the other hand, building disincentives for serving children 5 years old and downwards or 17 years old and upwards," she added.
Massachusetts has a state special-education law that covers all students between the ages of 3 and 21. And, according to federal figures, 44 states and the District of Columbia have special-education laws that include children above the age of 18. Some 16 states and the District of Columbia include children below 4the age of 5.
Massachusetts officials said they only learned of the state's funds reduction through a grant-notification letter this summer showing $1.5-million less than expected.
Notification and Response
They were informed then that the Education Department had based its $32.7-million grant to the state on a child count of 120,360--5,611 fewer than they had calculated.
The department pays states $272 for each child enrolled in special-education programs, up to the 12 percent maximum.
John Lawson, commissioner of education in Massachusetts, said in a Sept. 10 letter to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett that the state grant had been "arbitrarily reduced by $1,525,828 for a reason that has yet to be explained to us."
In his letter, Mr. Lawson informed the Secretary that he had sent letters to Ms. Will in both July and August but received no reply.
Mr. Lawson also told the Secretary that an apparent disparity exists between his department's figures and those used in the federal calculation. The Massachusetts department of education, he said, reports annual population and enrollment information to the nces and the Bureau of the Census.
"These accurate and verifiable counts," wrote the Commissioner, 8"are not the numbers used in the denominator by [the federal office of special education and rehabilitative services] in computing the percentage of school-aged children aged 5 through 17 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
The Education Department's Ms. Guard said the nces determines child-count figures on the basis of data contributed by the state and total-enrollment estimates by the Bureau of the Census.
Massachusetts officials' August notification that they owed the federal government $676,256 of the $32.1\million grant they received last year for special-education programs came almost a year after the overpayment had been discovered, according to Ms. Guard.
She said a report on child-count figures completed by her office last October uncovered the fact that Massachusetts had exceeded the 12 percent maximum by 2,626 children in 1985. The state was not notified earlier, she said, because of internal delays.
Mr. Lawson has requested a hearing on the 1985 grant but has not yet received a response from the Education Department, according to Terry Zoulas, a spokesman for the Massachusetts education department.
"The federal government has been pushing us to serve more 3-year-olds and more 17-to-21-year-olds, but we can't count on getting money for them," Mr. Zoulas said.
In interviews, both federal and state special-education officials disclaimed the frequent charge that states have inflated their child counts--primarily through the over-inclusion of learning disabilities--to receive more money from the federal government.
"I know it's not encouraged at the state level," said William Schipper, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
Program Expansion Analyzed
He indicated that the expansion of programs to include a wider age range may be a factor in recent program growth and said that, although a 12 percent cap may be necessary, the law should cover the same age population as a state's special-education law.
As soon as the states realize the federal government is strictly enforcing the 12 percent maximum, he predicted, "states in the 11-plus arena are going to begin to question the philosophical basis for the 5- through 17-year-old part of the federal formula."
Ms. Guard, however, said she was not aware of any present plans to revise the law.