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Choice Plan Now Includes Free Transportation for Disabled

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In a move with potential implications for other states with school-choice plans, Nebraska lawmakers have heeded federal officials and amended their statewide open-enrollment plan to require school districts to offer free transportation to participating disabled students who need it.

Under the rules of the program as approved by the legislature last year, the families of handicapped students would have been obligated--like other participating families--to pay any transportation costs for their children to attend school in a district other than the one in which they lived.

But state and federal officials subsequently concluded that provision conflicted with federal special-education law, which requires schools to provide free transportation if the4child needs it "in order to benefit from special education."

The issue came to the attention of Nebraska school and legislative officials when they began checking with other open-enrollment states to find out what they did about transportation for students with disabilities.

The officials found that no other state open-enrollment statute specifically addressed that question, acccording to Kim Davis, an aide to Senator Dennis G. Baack, the original legislative sponsor of Nebraska's choice plan.

Joe E. Lutjeharms, the state commissioner of education, then put the question to Robert R. Davila, the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

In his reply last month, Mr. Davila noted that "for some students with handicaps, the denial of necessary transportation would be a violation" of their right to a free and appropriate public education.

"If a child is entitled to transportation as a related service, the school district responsible ... must provide, or ensure the provision of, transportation," Mr. Davila wrote.

Nebraska's new legislation,el15lwhich was easily approved by lawmakers this month, requires the school districts in which transferring special-education and low-income students reside to pay for any transportation they need. The state will repay the districts for 90 percent of such costs.

"I'm sure other states will want to look at this and it will create a precedent," Ms. Davis said.

Thus far, about 300 students are scheduled to participate in the state's open-enrollment program, which is slated to begin this fall in districts that volunteer to send or accept students. Districts are not required to accept students until 1993, when the program is to be fully implemented.

Approximately 20 of those students are handicapped, according to state school-finance officials.--dv

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