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2 Percent Rise in Special-Ed. Enrollments Recorded in 1989

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Washington--The number of children served in school special-education programs last year increased by more than 2 percent over the previous year--the largest such annual increase in nearly a decade.

That information is contained in the "Twelfth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Education of the Handicapped Act." Prepared each year by the Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services, the massive document provides a statistical snapshot of the status of special-education programs across the country.

The report recently was delivered to Congressional offices and soon will be available to the public through the federal special-education office.

According to the report, 4.5 million students were enrolled in school special-education programs last year. That number represented an increase of 93,090 over the previous year, and the largest annual increase since 1981.

"It really did seem that the numbers had sort of leveled off in the mid-80's and bottomed out," said Donald Barrett, a spokesman for the federal special-education office. "Then last year, we had an increase of a little more than 1 percent, and this year we have more than 2 percent, and we really don't know why."

One possible factor in the increase has been the rapid growth in the number of handicapped infants and toddlers who are now receiving services through a new federal special-education program enacted in 1986. The Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act of 1986, or P.L. 99-457, provided new funds and strong incentives for states to serve disabled children age 5 and under.

While reliable data on the number of infants being served are unavailable, the report states that the number of handicapped 3- to 5-year-olds being served increased from 265,814 to 321,360 between 1985 and 1988--a 21 percent increase.

States 'On Schedule'

In a further indication of the seriousness with which states appear to be embracing the new program, the report notes that most of the 48 states or territories participating are right on schedule in developing new policies to meet the act.

Under the law, the states were required by last year to either adopt a policy delineating a comprehensive, statewide system for serving handicapped preschoolers or request special permission to delay developing their policies. According to the report, only 16 states requested waivers last year; 32 states submitted their policies.

"There had been some concern that everyone was going to come in with a waiver," Mr. Barrett said.

Large increases also were reported in recent years in the number of students between 18 and 21 years of age who were receiving special-education services, according to the report.

The report also noted increases in most handicapping categories, ex4cept for mental retardation. In recent years, the number of children classified as mentally retarded has declined each year by about 3 percent--a decrease most experts attribute to changes in methods for diagnosing that condition, the perception that a stigma is attached to that label, and the "chilling effect" of recent federal lawsuits stemming from cases in which disproportionately large numbers of black children were found to be classified as mentally retarded.

The overall growth in the number of children with disabilities, however, may be exacerbating the severe and widely recognized shortage of educators and other professionals trained to work with these children.

According to the report, even though the number of special-education teachers employed nationally increased by 838 between the 1986-87 and 1987-88 school years, states (including the District of Columbia and territories) reported needing 29,774 additional teachers to fill vacancies and replace uncertified staff. Many of those positions were for teachers of handicapped infants and toddlers.

The report also included, for the first time, statistics on the kind of courses handicapped students are taking in high school.

It indicates, for example, that most special-education students take 68 percent or more of their courses in regular classes.

"That sort of puts added meat to the discussion of who's responsible for helping these kids make their transitions from high school," Mr. Barrett said. "Regular education may have to bear as much of the burden [as special education]."

On a more disturbing note, however, the report suggests that few special-education students in secondary schools are getting the kind of in-depth preparation they need to find employment in a particular vocation.

While special-education students in general earned one credit more in vocational education classes than their nonhandicapped peers, the majority of the courses appeared to be at the introductory level and covering several skill areas. Few of these students were following a program of sequential coursework in a particular skill area.

The report also indicates that of the 238,579 handicapped students8who left school during the 1987-88 school year, more than 27 percent had dropped out. Forty-two percent graduated with a diploma. Most of the others had "aged out" of special-education programs.

The students most likely to drop out were those who suffered from emotional disturbances. Students with that particular disability made up more than 40 percent of all handicapped students who dropped out last year.

Limited copies of the report are available, at no charge, by writing: Division of Innovation and Development, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202-2641.

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