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Groups Push for Big Boost in Special-Education Funds

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Washington--Buoyed by fresh statistics and new interest on the part of key members of the Congress, lobbyists for school and special-education groups and advocates for disabled children have launched a major drive this year to gain significant increases in federal funding for special education.

The purpose of the effort, which has come to be known as the "$1-billion initiative" is to work toward "full funding" of special education.

In 1975, when federal lawmakers passed the landmark law guaranteeing every handicapped child a public education, they promised to pay up to 40 percent of the average cost of educating a child with a disability.

But although powerful Congressional allies, such as former Senator Lowell P. Weicker of Connecticut, have long shielded special-education programs from budget cuts, the federal share of educating children with disabilities has never exceeded 12 percent. Federal dollars now pay only about 7 percent of that cost.

Lobbyists and advocates said last week they hope to edge the Congress toward that long-term goal by calling for a $1-billion increase in 1991 for the basic special-education grant program to states. That amount would swell the federal share of education costs for disabled children to roughly 15 percent.

In past years, such efforts have stumbled for lack of strong statistics to support the need for more money, according to Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators.

"With some other federal programs, like Chapter 1 or Head Start, we can always say we served 40 percent or 80 percent of the kids, or we can say we improved reading scores 'X' percent," he said, "but with the Education of the Handicapped Act, we've had no longitudinal data."

What advocates have instead this year are statistics showing that increasing costs of special education may pose a threat to the education of nonhandicapped students.

Compiled by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, the numbers document rising special-education costs in 10 states. In nine of those states, the figures indicate that the proportion of the state education budget consumed by special-education expenditures has also been increasing.

The percentage of the budget going to special education has risen, for example, in Michigan from 9.1 percent in 1980 to 12.9 percent in 1988. It has gone from 10.5 percent to 16.3 percent over the same period in Massachusetts, and from 11 percent to 16.6 percent in New York.

In addition, noted Paul Marchand, a lobbyist for the Association for Retarded Citizens, some other special-education programs created by the Congress are facing important milestones this year.

By next year, under the preschool program created by the Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act of 1987, all schools must serve 3- to 5-year-olds with disabilities. But the Congress has yet to fund that program at the rate prescribed in the law--about $1,000 per child. States now receive about $750 for every child served.

The same law set up a state grant program for handicapped infants and toddlers. The program requires states to have a system in place for such youngsters by 1991 or risk losing funding.

"The governors are beginning to say, 'Yeah, you shoved another mandate down our throats and you're not giving us much money,"' Mr. Marchand said. "We're concerned that some states will opt out of the program."

He and others are also asking for additional large increases for those early-intervention programs.

Lobbyists said the broad nature of the funding drive, which involvessuch diverse groups as the ARC, the NASDE., and the AASA, is part of its new-found strength.

The drive received a boost in recent months when Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee, in recommendations to their colleagues on budget committees, called for large increases in special-education spending. In 1991, they said, the federal share for special education should be increased from 7 percent to 10 percent. And in each of the two succeeding years, they added, special-education spending should be boosted by $250 million over the current allocation for that year.

At the urging of one Republican, Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the House Budget Committee last week incorporated much of that request in its budget-resolution report, which is essentially a detailed description of its blueprint for federal spending in 1991. (See related story on page 20.)

"To have the Republicans on the committee working for significant increases is bound to help," said Stephen Anderson, an aide to Representative Les AuCoin, Democrat of Oregon, a longtime advocate for "full funding" of special education.

The intensity of the lobbying effort was confirmed last week by House aides, who said they have been receiving letters on the issue from constituents, inquiries from other members of the Congress, and visits from school superintendents.

The coalition has been less active in the Senate--partly because appropriations matters come up first in the House.

Despite the momentum, however, the lobbyists still face concerns from federal lawmakers.

"So far, it seems to only have to do with increasing the federal proportion of special-education costs, it would not increase services for handicapped kids," said one aide, who asked not to be named.

And, as other aides pointed out, it may be too early in the budget process to predict who the likely winners and losers will be.

But, concluded Mr. Marchand, "these are real initiatives and whether or not they will bear fruit remains to be seen."

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