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Federal Panel Calls for a Commission To Spur Reforms in Special Education

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By Debra Viadero

Washington--Saying the educational progress of America's 4.4 million disabled students is at a crossroads, the National Council on Disability has called for the establishment of a two-year national commission to help spur reforms in special education.

"The focus over the past 14 years in educating students with disabilities has been on ... access to a public education," the group said in a report released last week. "The time has come to shift the focus to quality and student outcomes."

The council is a 15-member panel appointed by the President to advise the federal government on issues concerning people with disabilities. It is most noted for having made the recommendations that form the basis of the "Americans with disabilities act," a major civil-rights bill for the handicapped that is moving quickly through the Congress.

The group's report on special education, "The Education of Students With Disabilities: Where Do We Stand?," was based on a yearlong, $197,000 study mandated by the Congress. The purpose of the study, according to its director, Jane West, was to "paint a profile of the landscape" in special education.

What the commission found was a system in need of change. Bypassed so far by much of the reform movement, special education has particular problems that demand the spotlight of national attention, the group concluded.

The report notes, for example, that 36 percent of students with disabilities drop out of school and that only 15 percent go on to postsecondary study. Among disabled Americans between the ages of 16 and 64, it says, 66 percent are unemployed.

"Simply assuring that services are present or placing students with disabilities into general classrooms is no longer good enough," the report says. "The time has come to ask the same questions for students with disabilities that we have been asking of students without disabilities."

Shaping a Commission

The council's recommendation for a two-year national commission on special education is its third call for such an undertaking. Federal policymakers never took up the earlier recommendations.

"If you really believe in it, you just try to get it done yourself,'' said Sandra Swift Parrino, council chairman.

The commission envisioned would parallel the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the group whose 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, is credited with spurring the education-reform movement.

The special-education commission would be made up of a wide cross-section of those involved in the education of disabled students: parents, classroom teachers, special educators, school administrators, school-board members, state and federal policymakers, researchers, teacher trainers, the students themselves, and other professionals.

The panel would explore, among other areas, ways for special education and general education to collaborate in educating all students. It would also address how to promote further integration of students with disabilities into regular classrooms--a focus whose adoption prompted a formal dissent from one commission member.

Leslie Lenkowsky, president of the nonprofit Institute for Educational Affairs in Washington, said the report puts "undue emphasis on the ideal of 'integrated education' at the neighborhood school."

"Our real objective should always be to serve the best interests of the child," he wrote. "Several segments of the disability community believe that this cannot be accomplished for some children in the context of mainstream schools."

Articulating Problems

In addition to outlining the parameters of the proposed national commission, the report raises a "red flag" on several problem areas in special education. Among its findings are that:

  • Relationships between parents of disabled students and professionals in the field are often strained. And parents often have difficulty obtaining appropriate services for their children.
  • Schools frequently have expectations for students with disabilities that are too low.
  • Minority students, children from poor families, and students who live in rural areas are often underserved.
  • Disabled students whose families are in the military are not protected under federal special-education law.
  • Many parents do not challenge their children's educational programs because they are either unaware of their rights under the law or unable to pay the cost of the process.
  • Special-education evaluation procedures and definitions of disability classifications vary greatly among states and school districts. And minorities are often overrepresented in certain disability categories.
  • The federal government has not fulfilled its initial promise to shoulder 40 percent of the cost of educating handicapped students, with the states and local school districts picking up the rest.
  • Schools, businesses, and parents need to be enlisted in a crucial effort to help disabled students bridge the gap between school and work or further study.

The study won praise from Robert R. Davila, the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. He noted that many of the issues identified by the council were also areas his office plans to address.

Copies of the 129-page report are available from the National Council on Disability, 800 Independence Ave., S.W., Suite 814, Washington, D.C. 20591.

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