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Draft Pennsylvania Rules Require Aid For All Pupils With Learning Problems

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Pennsylvania schools would have to provide special help to all students with learning problems, even if they were not legally classified as "handicapped," under new special-education rules currently being considered by the state school board.

The proposed regulations would require schools to set up an "instructional support team" for each student who is determined to be having difficulty in learning.

Composed of the school principal, the student's teachers, and other support personnel, the team would meet to discuss the student's learning problems and come up with a strategy to help him or her succeed in school. If the intervention was considered after 30 days to have failed, the student would be referred to the special-education system for a formal evaluation.

"Right now, we have a lot of students who aren't handicapped but who are having trouble and who get referred to special education because nothing informal is available," said Robert Feir, executive director of the state board.

"This will allow us to intervene earlier and more appropriately without a formal and expensive evaluation process," he argued.

"The concept is to give students instructional interventions that would help kids succeed in the regular classroom, so they don't have to be put in the special-education stream," explained Nicholas Panagoplos, who is chairman of the board subcommittee that is developing the rules.

If the draft regulations are adopted, Pennsylvania would be among only a handful of states to employ this kind of intervention strategy, according to state officials.

The proposed rule has received backing from state groups representing disabled students and their parents.

It has stirred controversy among school administrators, however, who warn that the new mandate would put a heavy financial burden on local districts.

"We're concerned that school districts are going to wind up picking up the tab for a lot of the extra costs involved in this," said Thomas Gentzel, president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

"We find it ironic that regulations that were intended to get costs under control are going to increase costs substantially," he added.

The legislature this year mandated the effort to revise the special-education rules, in the wake of a public furor over a mounting deficit in the state special-education budget. (See Education Week, June 14, 1989.)

Lawmakers this summer appropriated $99 million to pay off the entire debt. Under the existing special-education rules, however, the shortfall has continued to mount.

By the end of this fiscal year, the deficit is expected to reach $60 million, Mr. Panagoplos said.

To keep the financial crisis from getting worse, the legislature asked the board to "speed up" its timetable for revising special-education rules, with the goal of having the new regulations in place by January.

The effort represents the first major revision of the state's special-education programs in 14 years.

The officials developing the new rules acknowledge that the "instructional support team" concept will be expensive at first.

Over the long term, however, the strategy will result in savings because fewer students will be placed in special-education programs, the officials maintain.

The additional paperwork involved in the new procedure will be minimal, they say, because the teams will only be required to complete a single-page report on each student.

A key to making the new intervention successful, architects of the proposal argue, is to ensure that the new teams do not become "a mirror image" of the formal, multidisciplinary teams that are now required by federal law to meet and develop an "individualized education plan'' for every special-education student.

"Then it would become just another hoop to jump through," Mr. Feir said.

The draft regulations contain a number of other innovative proposals as well.

They seek, for example, to eliminate the common use of stigmatizing labels, such as "educable mentally retarded" or "learning disabled,'' to describe a student's handicapping condition.

Instead, students would be labeled only as being "eligible" for special-education services. And their individualized education plans would reflect "learning goals" specific to their needs.

The board is scheduled to review the draft proposal at its Nov. 9 meeting.

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