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States Found Still Using Private-Placement 'Option'

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Washington--Despite a nationwide emphasis on placing special-education students in regular classrooms whenever possible, some states rely far more heavily than others on special schools for serving handicapped children, according to a new Education Department report.

The department's annual report on implementation of the Education of the Handicapped Act indicates that some states place students in separate settings at rates 20 times higher than those of some other states.

The report also notes that the national proportion of handicapped children served in separate facilities has remained nearly constant since 1976, the year following the landmark law's enactment.

The statistics on state variation in the use of segregated facilities were based on the 1986-87 school year.

The study found that in Delaware--the state with the highest rate of segregated placements--handicapped students were being taught in separate schools or facilities at the rate of 13,000 for every 1 million children of the same age in the general population. In Alaska, the rate was 600 per 1 million students.

And the average state places nearly six times as many students in separate school settings as do the five states with the lowest rates of such placements--Alaska, Iowa, Oregon, Alabama, and Mississippi.

"The extent of variability suggests that factors in addition to the characteristics of students determine educational placements," the report says, "and the decisionmaking power vested in the [individualized-education-plan] process has not been sufficient to overcome these factors."

"The reason for the variation is clear," Frank Laski, a spokesman for the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, said last week. "States and localities by and large are using pre-existing options for kids."

"States that have built up a network of private-school placements, intermediate-unit placements, or center placements continue to use them because they're available," he explained.

But some experts and state officials cautioned that the department's figures may be misleading.

Wayne Sailor, professor of teacher education at San Francisco State University, said that his studies on severely handicapped children show an opposite trend, toward placements in the regular classroom or other less-restrictive environments.

"It may be that there is a great deal of inaccuracy in the very nature of the way the placements are counted," he said.

A top special-education official in Delaware concurred.

"It's a function of the reporting system," said Vaughan Lauer, the state's director of programs for exceptional children. "We said, 'Wait a minute, we really aren't segregating kids all day long."'

He said Delaware revised its reporting methods last year to reflect more accurately the degree to which handicapped students in the state are interacting with nonhandicapped peers. As a result, he said, the number of students in segregated facilities showed a 27 percent decline from the figures in the federal department's report.

The report also indicates that:

After adjusting for inflation, the average per-pupil expenditure for special education increased 10 percent between the 1977-78 and 1985-86 school years. Comparable spending for regular education rose only 4 percent during the same period.

Two years after leaving secondary school, 82 percent of handicapped children were still living at home. Other studies have shown that only half of all nondisabled youth were living at home at that point.

Among emotionally or behaviorally disordered students who have been out of school more than one year, 44 percent have been arrested.

The number of 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in special-education programs increased 8.5 percent between 1986 and 1987, as the result of a new federal law that extends special-education services to handicapped infants and toddlers.

Special-education programs served 4.5 million handicapped children of all ages in 1987--a 1.6 percent increase over the previous year.

Copies of the study will be available without charge later this summer from the Office of Special Education Programs, Switzer Building, Room 3529, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202.

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