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Massachusetts Officials Take Aim at Special-Education Costs

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Ferment in Massachusetts over the high price tag of the state's exemplary special-education system is forcing officials to take the unprecedented step of reexamining the way they educate handicapped children.

Though the cost of teaching the handicapped has long been a concern in the Bay State--where special-education guarantees predate the landmark federal law on educating the handicapped--new economic forces have propelled the issue to the forefront in recent weeks.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has formed an interagency work group to look at the problem. State Auditor Joseph DeNucci has announced that his office will undertake a comprehensive investigation of the system. And the legislature is considering bills that would boost state aid to towns overburdened with private-school tuitions for the severely handicapped.

"In the nine years I've been doing this, I've never seen such intensity of effort," said MaryAnn Byrnes, president of the Massachusetts Association for Administrators of Special Education.

Effect of Tax Law

The major catalyst for the change has been Proposition 2, a state law that severely limits the ability of cities and towns to levy taxes for the services they provide. Approved in a 1980 voter referendum, the law restricts local property taxes to 2.5 percent of assessed property values.

Steady increases in state aid to municipalities helped cushion the blow from Proposition 2 for several years. But this year, state and local officials report, many cities and towns are bumping up against the tax limits imposed by the law.

Pressured by the fiscal constraints, they are targeting special-education services for criticism.

"It is not unusual for a child to have a $50,000 special-education program," said Edward Moscovitch, one of the most vocal critics of the system.

"In a little town, if two or three children like that move in, that can use up the entire allowable taxing capacity--let alone increases for teacher salaries or other expenses," said Mr. Moscovitch, who as executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association represents the state's 321 towns and cities.

Motivated by stories of small towns going bankrupt or accumulating massive budget deficits as a result of their special-education programs, his association has led the effort to force a reexamination of the state's $440-million special-education program.

Unique Set of Problems

Concerns over the expense of special education are not unique to Massachusetts. But the issue has been intensified there, officials say, by characteristics peculiar to the state's system.

"Some of these issues might be surfacing in Massachusetts sooner than they would in other states," said Judith Riegelhaupt, the state education department's acting associate commissioner.

According to Ms. Riegelhaupt, one characteristic that contributes to the problem is the reliance of Massachusetts and other New England states on expensive, private institutions to serve the needs of severely handicapped children.

Outside of New England, she said, such children are often placed in regional development centers or comparable facilities operated and paid for by the state.

In Massachusetts, some 600 handicapped children--about 2.9 percent of the state's total special-education population--are being served in private schools.

While the state picks up 60 percent of those costs, the private-school tuitions can still be an expensive burden for municipalities.

"Over the last two years, the average increase in costs for private schools has gone up 35 percent," Ms. Riegelhaupt said, "I think that's what districts are most concerned about."

'Maximum, Feasible Benefit'

In addition, some educators are predicting that a recent federal-court ruling will increase the number of children in the state who receive such placements.

The watershed decision came in the 1985 case of David D. v. Dartmouth. In it, a federal appeals court used Massachusetts' special-education law--rather than the federal law--to determine that a mentally retarded adolescent boy should be placed in a private, residential school.

Considered to be more generous than the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the state law favors placing handicapped children in the educational environment that will provide them with the "maximum, feasible benefit."

Federal law stipulates the provision of a "free, appropriate education" in the "least restrictive environment" for handicapped children.

"Those kinds of 'maximum, feasible benefit' decisions extended the range of responsibilities for public schools," said Ms. Byrne, who is also director of pupil services and special education in Sudbury, Mass.

"I suppose if money grew on trees, the more services that could be provided, the better," said Mr. Moscovitch of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, "but, it doesn't."

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