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Most States Adopting Programs for Handicapped Preschoolers

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WASHINGTON--A nationwide survey has found that an overwhelming majority of states plan to take part this year in a new federal program to provide aid and services to an estimated 70,000 handicapped infants and toddlers.

"It looks pretty exciting,'' said Robert Silverstein, staff director of the Senate subcommittee that helped spearhead the new program. "There is no state that has said 'no,' and this is in light of the fact that there are no regulations yet.''

According to the survey of the states' chief special-education administrators, 40 states and territories have decided to participate this year in the program for handicapped infants and toddlers created last fall by a sweeping act of the Congress.

The new law, the Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act of 1986, P.L. 99-457, set up a $50-million program of incentive grants for serving handicapped and "developmentally delayed'' children from birth to age 2.

A separate part of the law provides more money and strong incentives for states to serve handicapped 3- to 5-year-olds or risk losing all of their federal special-education funding.

The survey, completed last week, is the most recent of three surveys on the program conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Since February, the association has been asking its 56 members whether their states plan to begin serving handicapped infants and how they plan to go about doing so.

Advocates of early intervention for handicapped children said the survey results bode well for the new program.

"We are very pleased,'' said Frederick J. Weintraub of the Council for Exceptional Children, a key lobbyist in the effort to obtain passage of the new law last year.

"Clearly, states are anxious to participate in the program,'' said Sharon A. Walsh, who heads the survey project for NASDE.

"This is something that's been growing for the last few years and the legislation just put a cap on all that.''

Plans for Expansion

When lawmakers passed P.L. 99-457 last September, only six states provided some services to handicapped children at birth.

Nineteen states served handicapped children beginning at age 3, and 25 states provided special education for 5-year-olds.

It is not clear, from the survey data, whether the number of states serving handicapped 3-to-5-year-olds has increased yet, but a number of states have announced such plans.

Special-education directors in three states said they would begin serving children at age 3 by 1990, according to the survey, and directors in 12 states said they expected their states to extend their special-education mandates down to 3-year-olds by 1991.

For most states, serving the handicapped 3-to-5-year-old population is a simple matter of expanding existing preschool programs, state officials said.

"It's working out beautifully for us,'' said James Prickett, director of special education in North Carolina, where services are now provided for limited categories of those children, such as those with severe, profound, or multiple handicaps.

Coordination of Services

One of the early uncertainties created by the legislation stemmed from its Part H, the program that focuses only on incentive grants for handicapped infants from birth to 2 years old.

Unlike the 3-to-5-year-old program--which is, in effect, an extension of the P.L. 94-142 mandate to provide special education for all school-age handicapped children--the infant-and-toddler program is new and calls for coordination of services from many state agencies.

To qualify for a grant under the program, each state must form a body to pull together those state agencies involved, including health, education, mental health, social services, and other departments. The law also instructs the governors to name a single lead agency to spearhead the new program--a provision that experts predicted would lead to "turf battles'' among agencies. (See Education Week, October 29, 1986.)

So far, according to the survey, many of the 26 governors who have already chosen a lead agency are picking their education departments for the role. State education agencies will head the new program in 11 states and territories, the survey found.

The other choices for lead agencies break down as follows: human resources/services agencies, named in four states; health and human/social services, chosen in two states; health departments, designated by two states; the interagency coordinating group, named in two states; and the departments of mental health and of developmental disabilities, named in one state each.

Despite the wide variety of lead agencies chosen, experts said "turf battles'' have rarely developed.

"There have been a few struggles in a few places but not what I would call battles,'' said Mr. Weintraub of the Council for Exceptional Children. "What surprised me was the number of education agencies that are pursuing this. We kept hearing rumblings that they didn't want to have anything to do with it.''

Purposeful Imprecision

In a planned ambiguity, the law imprecisely defines the population of "developmentally delayed'' children who could qualify for services, giving states the option to include "at risk'' children in their own interpretations of the term.

Experts said the direction taken on that question by states was important because it would determine how thinly the federal funds would be spread and, for, the first time, would indicate just how many such youngsters might need to be served nationwide.

"That's part of the problem in early intervention right now,'' said Kay Halverson, an early-childhood, special-education consultant to the Connecticut education department. "There are so many different agencies serving these kids that, to ask how many kids aren't being served is a nightmare.''

So far, according to the survey, 13 states have decided to serve "at risk'' as well as handicapped infants. Thus, the estimated percentages of children in that age group who would be eligible for the new services vary widely. The survey found that, among the 16 states that provided such information, the estimates of the number of eligible children ranged from 0.75 percent of all infants and toddlers in Nebraska to 16 percent of such children in the District of Columbia.

Rescissions and Regulations

The widespread participation in both programs follows an attempt earlier this year to rescind federal funding for the new law. In its proposed budget this January, the Reagan Administration called for rescinding $300 million in special-education funds, much of which would have paid for grants under the new law. But the Congress never acted on that request and, under the rescission process, the money was automatically restored.

"Nothwithstanding the attempted rescission, which might have created anxiety in some people's minds, and the lack of regulations, I think it's all pretty positive,'' said Mr. Silverstein of the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped.

According to an Education Department official, the final federal regulations for the new programs will not be completed in time to govern the allocation of this year's grants.

"They've been put on the slow track,'' said Thomas Finch, the department's branch chief for early-childhood programs.

He said the department would award its grants this year on the basis of the more general guidelines contained in the language of the law itself. Application packages for both programs, he said, will be mailed to the states "hopefully, around the middle of May.'' The final regulations, he added, will be in place in time for next year's round of grant awards.

Rules of the Game

While the delay has not deterred many states from joining the program, it has caused problems for others, experts said.

"It's hard when there are no regulations,'' said Ruth Fletcher, assistant director of planning and program development in the special-education unit of New Mexico's education department. "It's hard to play the game when you don't know the rules yet.''

She said New Mexico officials have not yet decided whether to participate in the program, though the state education department has recommended to the governor's office that the state take part.

But, for many states, the new programs continue a process that, in some cases, began as long ago as the 1960's, when the value of earlier intervention for handicapped youngsters became apparent.

"We welcomed the law,'' said Carl M. Haltom, director of exceptional children and special programs in Delaware. His state provides services now for deaf-blind, hearing-impaired, visually impaired and autistic children beginning at birth, and gradually expands the pool of eligible youngsters in later years.

Mr. Haltom said he estimates that early intervention could save the state over the short run $4.00 for every $1.00 the program costs. "Over the lifetime of a child, I'd say it's $8.00 to $1.00 at least,'' he said.

In addition to Delaware, the remaining states and territories taking part in the new Part H program, according to the survey, include:

Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Florida, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Northern Marianas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

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