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Politics Seen as Threat to Special-Education Reauthorization

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Washington--Some advocates for the handicapped are warning that partisan politics could stall efforts to extend several parts of the federal special- education law.

Portions of the Education of the Handicapped Act representing $170 million in spending for research, dissemination, training, technical assistance, and model programs are due to expire on Sept. 30. If the Congress fails to pass a reauthorization bill by that date, another federal education law will grant the programs an automatic one-year extension.

Advocacy groups say they are worried because, for the first time in the law's history, Republicans and Democrats on the House subcommittee that oversees the programs have crafted separate reauthorization proposals. Both draft bills were circulated last month.

One of the chief aims of the Democrats' bill is to focus more attention on handicapped minority students and boost the number of minority teachers of special education. The Republican version, in contrast, emphasizes ways to help the handicapped make the transition from high school to work or further study.

The debate could become even more complicated after the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped releases its own reauthorization bill early this month.

"If this is leading to a partisan approach to eha, a lot of us will be disappointed," said Frederick J. Weintraub, a lobbyist for the Council for Exceptional Children. "If it's a process of, 'Here are my views and here are yours and let's go from here,' then O.K."

"Now we've got draft bills bigger than a bread basket and very different from each other in form and substance that don't seem to be leading to helpful steps in consensus-building," he said.

Aides to Republican and Democratic members of the House subcommittee suggested, however, that the existence of two draft bills would not delay the reauthorization process.

"I think everybody wants to have a bipartisan bill," said Patricia Laird, a Democratic committee staff member. "And I don't see any striking differences that we can't work out."

The Republican bill was developed at the request of Representative Steve Bartlett of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Subcommittee on Select Education.

Aides to the panel's Republican members said their purpose in developing a separate draft was expediency, not partisan politics.

The staff members said they decided it would be easier and quicker to work from a separate draft. And, they point out, both versions share many similarities.

Both drafts, they noted, seek to stem the serious shortage of trained special educators. Both bills also would strengthen services for children who are seriously emotionally disturbed--a population often thought to fall through the cracks among special-education, juvenile-justice, and mental-health agencies.

The Republican version would address the problem by creating a one-time, three-year grant program to encourage joint projects by education and mental-health agencies. The Democrats' bill would give priority to such projects under an existing competitive-grant program.

The draft bills diverge in other areas, however.

The Democratic version, for example, would direct the Education Department to give priority for grants to historically black colleges or institutions with minority enrollments of 25 percent or more. It also would set aside funds for projects in areas with large minority and underserved pop8ulations.

The Democrats' bill also would channel more funds toward research on ways to improve services for minority students in special education. Black students have long been thought to be overrepresented in some special-education categories, such as educable mentally retarded.

In addition, the bill would require for the first time that independent evaluations be conducted of all projects funded under the law.

And it seeks to make all research conducted under the act more accessible to parents and practitioners--primarily through existing clearinghouses and resource centers.

The Republican version, in contrast, places greatest emphasis on the transition from high school to work or postsecondary education.

The bill would set aside $25 million for one-time grants to education and vocational-rehabilitation agencies for transition projects and create incentives for schools to provide more transition services to the handicapped.

In addition, the Republican bill addresses the ongoing debate over language in the federal law that requires schools to teach handicapped children in the "least restrictive" educational environment possible.

Some special-education groups--particularly those representing the deaf--argue that many educators read the language to mean, invariably, that handicapped children should always be taught in regular classrooms, even when that environment may not be appropriate. They contend the law should instead require that children be placed in the "most enabling" environment.

Other groups say, however, that separate schools are never appropriate for handicapped students.

The Republican bill includes several provisions stating that some programs and research funded under the law should develop "enabling environments for children [that increase] the likelihood that they will be educated and served beside their nondisabled peers."

The bill is clearer in regard to programs for severely handicapped students, stating that programs should address ways to educate them in classes with nondisabled peers.

While some advocates see the existence of two draft versions of the bill as evidence of a coming, possibly disruptive, political confrontation, other observers are more optimistic about the possibility of compromise and accommodation.

"If they could work it out and take the two and combine them, it could be a very good bill," said Celane McWhorter, a lobbyist for The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps. "I don't see any issues in the two bills that are so far apart."

"I don't think any of us presumed that this could be the major tension-producing legislation for us in the Congress this year," Mr. Weintraub said. "Hopefully, it won't be."

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