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Lawmakers Tentatively Agree To Drop Proposal on Attention-Deficit Disorder

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By Debra Viadero

Washington--Federal lawmakers have tentatively agreed to drop a controversial proposal to explicitly entitle children with attention-deficit disorders to special-education services.

The proposal, which was opposed by a wide array of education, mental-health, and civil-rights groups, had come in the form of language in a House report on legislation reauthorizing the Education of the Handicapped Act. Although not legally binding, the wording could have effectively expanded the federal definition of an eligible special-education category to include the disorder.

The proposal had generated intense debates on Capitol Hill in recent months and had threatened to derail final passage of the federal special-education law. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

Under the terms of a tentative agreement forged late last week, the controversial language would be eliminated from the final report on the bill. Instead, the legislation would instruct the Education Department to publish a notice in the Federal Register asking for comments from the field on what would make an appropriate definition for the disorder.

The provision would also authorize the Secretary of Education to set up centers around the country to collect and disseminate information on the disorder, which affects an estimated to 3 percent to 5 percent of all schoolchildren.

"We felt the disorder did indeed exist, and children are still in need of services," said Patricia Laird, a legislative assistant to the House subcommittee on select education. "But this might be the best way to handle this so that everyone gets an opportunity to comment on the issues that would be raised by including the disorder in the definition."

No 'Diluted' Services

Final approval of the agreement was expected late last week from those involved in the issue on the Senate side. Both proponents and opponents of the original proposal said they would not fight the compromise plan when it comes up for a final vote, possibly as soon as this week.

"This is a victory for common sense and all schoolchildren in that important services for the handicapped would not be diluted by a change in the law that had not yet been thought through," said Edward Kealy, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, which led opposition to the original proposal.

Also opposing the change were associations representing school administrators, principals, state superintendents of education, mental-health professionals, and special educators.

They were joined in recent weeks by the Legal and Educational Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil-rights groups.

Critics warned that the change in the federal definition could lead to an explosion in the numbers of children being served in special education.

They pointed out that existing clinical definitions of the disorder, characterized by distractibility and impulsiveness, could apply to many children. As a result, they warned, many children--particularly those belonging to minority groups--could be inappropriately labeled and placed in special education.

Mr. Kealy expressed some reservations, however, about the language calling for the Federal Register notice.

"The basic question that's not raised in there is whether a definition is necessary, whether children are being unserved," he said. ''We contend they're not." He said such children are getting help under other labels, such as learning disabled or emotionally disturbed.

Others Disappointed

The agreement was more disappointing to groups representing the parents of children with attention-deficit disorders, who contend that schools are refusing to provide any special help for their children. They began lobbying for the expanded definition more than a year ago.

"Now parents are dependent on a teacher's goodwill from year to year, and that's no way to educate a child," said Sandra F. Thomas, president of Children with Attention Deficit Disorders, a national support group.

"We plan to continue working with the Congress next year," she said. "It's clear to us their intent is for these kids to be served."

"The question," she added, "is how."

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