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Pa. Board Backs Aid for All Learning-Troubled Pupils

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The Pennsylvania Board of Education last week approved a set of controversial new special-education rules that require school officials to provide some help to all students with learning problems, even if they are not yet legally classified as "handicapped."

The procedures would require school districts to provide special "instructional support teams" for each elementary-school student who has trouble learning. Composed of the student's classroom teacher, the school principal, and a "support teacher" trained and paid for by the state, the team would meet to discuss a student's learning problem and come up with strategies to help him or her succeed in the regular classroom.

"This will reduce the number of kids who are inappropriately referred for special education," said Robert Feir, executive director of the state board. Proponents of the idea also said it will allow children to get the help they need sooner--before they fail in school.

The new concept has engendered considerable controversy across the state, which has been in the throes of a funding crisis over its special-education programs for nearly a year. (See Education Week, June 14, 1989.)

School administrators and teachers contend that the procedures will place a heavy financial burden on the local districts charged with carrying out the plan. And parents have expressed fears that the teams would represent "one more hoop to jump through" before their children could get the special-education services they need.

The board unanimously approved the new rules on Jan. 23, with four members abstaining. Final enactment now hinges on approval from both the legislature and an independent regulatory-review commission. Both bodies must act within 30 days.

Major Overhaul

Intended to both improve special-education services and reduce costs, the regulatory package represents the first overhaul of the state's special-education program in 14 years.

In addition to establishing a new pre-referral process, it would also:

  • Prohibit local districts from collecting state reimbursement for some non-special-education services provided to handicapped children, such as instruction in art, music, and physical education.
  • Ban the use of corporal punishment and "time out" boxes for disciplining students with disabilities.
  • Establish procedures for serving handicapped infants and toddlers and developing "transition plans" to help older students move from high school to work or further study.

The rules guiding the development of "instructional support teams" were modified somewhat from earlier versions in an effort to respond to concerns from parents and school officials.

Rather than requiring immediate implementation of the teams, the new rules would give districts five years to put a pre-referral mechanism in place. They would also not be required to offer the new service until they received training from the state.

Parents who wished to bypass the support-team process would be able to ask school districts to evaluate their child for special education at any time, Mr. Feir said.

Higher Costs?

The changes, however, have done little to alleviate concerns over the potential costs of the new procedure.

"Instead of reducing special-education costs like they were supposed to do, they've increased special-education costs," said Thomas P. Gentzel, president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "Schools are going to be forced to pay a larger portion of a more expensive program."

State school-board members said the new pre-referral process, although costly at first, will reduce special-education costs in the long run as fewer students are referred for special education.

Gov. Robert P. Casey has also said he will propose a significant increase in special-education funding when he presents his budget plan to state lawmakers on Feb. 6.

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