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State Special-Education Placement Patterns Vary, E.D. Finds

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WASHINGTON--Some states are significantly more likely than others to place handicapped children in regular schools or classrooms, a new analysis by the Education Department indicates.

The study, which is already being called "inflammatory'' by critics, is expected to put pressure on state education officials to examine the patterns of special-education placement in their states.

Those in special education have long assumed that states' placement patterns varied, with some tending toward integrated and others toward segregated classroom settings.

Widespread Variation

But until now, few--if any--studies have documented student-placement rates in a way that allowed comparisons to be made among the states, according to G. Thomas Bellamy, director of the department's office of special-education programs and co-author, with Louis C. Danielson, of the study. Mr. Danielson heads the office's special-studies branch.

The researchers found, for example, that the average state places nearly five times as many students in segregated settings as do the five states judged to be most integrated--Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, and Oregon. Six states place more than 10 times as many students in segregated environments as those states do.

In the nation's capital, for example, handicapped children were 25 times more likely than children in Oregon to be placed in segregated educational settings, according to the study.

"One must conclude from the data that some states have been more successful than others in providing services in regular settings that were seen as appropriate by local decisionmakers,'' the researchers write.

The study also found that, despite such variability, the percentage of handicapped children nationwide who are placed in segregated settings has remained relatively stable since the passage of landmark federal special-education laws that emphasize placing handicapped children in the "least restrictive'' educational environment. Approximately 0.5 percent of all handicapped children were placed in segregated facilities each school year from 1976 to 1985.

Unanswered Questions

The study, which has been made available so far only to state directors of special education and some special-education interest groups, is already being criticized by state directors who say it raises more questions than it answers.

"It doesn't answer questions that need to be answered, like 'What are the quality of the services being provided to children in those settings?''' said Tom Gillung, the director of special education for Connecticut.

"Yet, at the same time,'' he added, "it's implicit in the data that states that tend to be at the lower end of the scale aren't doing their job when it comes to placing children in the regular education environment.''

He noted, for example, that the report counts special-education students in Roman Catholic schools as "out-placements'' or children being educated in separate settings.

He also said some special-education students are placed in segregated facilities for reasons beyond the control of state education officials. Such placement decisions are made at times by judges, state social-service agencies, parents, and other noneducational entities.

"I would suggest that, prior to publishing a report that could be viewed as inflammatory, the department has an obligation to answer some of those questions,'' he said.

In an interview last week, Mr. Bellamy countered that individual states are better equipped to find out why they place as many children in regular education settings as they do. Toward that end, he said, federal special-education officials have made discretionary grants available to some states for additional research.

"You can't take this as a single report on the quality of these schools,'' he said. "Placement in a regular education setting is just one of the values in the law.''

New Focus on Law's Language

The Education For All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142, states that, whenever possible, handicapped children should be placed in the "least restrictive'' educational environment--a term that many have interpreted to mean a child's neighborhood school. That emphasis has increased in recent years under the leadership of Madeleine C. Will, the assistant secretary in charge of special education and rehabilitative services and a proponent of the concept.

The department's strong focus on "least restrictive'' environments has generated some controversy in the field, particularly among some parents and educators of the deaf who believe that deaf children should be educated with other deaf classmates.

Mr. Bellamy said he hoped to include the kinds of statistics compiled in his study in the department's next annual report to the Congress on special education. In the meantime, he said, the department is seeking "comments and discussion'' on the analysis.

Copies of the study, "State Variation in Placement of Children With Handicaps in Segregated Environments,'' are available at no cost by writing G. Thomas Bellamy, Director, Office of Special Education Programs, Education Department, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Switzer Building, Room 3086, M/S 2313-3511, Washington, D.C. 20202.

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