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Extension Urged on Spec.-Ed. Deadline for Infants

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Washington--Some states may pull out of a fledgling federal program for infants and toddlers with disabilities unless they are given more time to put their programs in place, representatives of national special-education groups warned last week.

The Early Intervention Program for Handicapped Infants and Toddlers was established in 1986 as part of a sweeping Congressional effort to prod all states to extend help to their youngest handicapped citizens. It provides seed money for states to set up systems for getting a wide range of social, medical, and educational services to handicapped children from the time they are born until they reach age 2.

But in their fifth year of participation in the program, states are required under the law to begin directly serving those children or pull out. Roughly 10 states are about to reach that deadline, and so must notify federal officials by July whether they intend to stay in the program.

"When this was enacted in 1986, there were different fiscal realities," said Norena Hale, former president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. "Now, our national economy is showing signs of recession and this commitment is among a number of competing demands for increasingly scarce resources."

Ms. Hale, who is Minnesota's state special-education director, spoke last week at a public hearing on the program held here by the Federal Interagency Coordinating Council, a group of representatives from many of the federal agencies involved in serving young children with handicaps and their families. The purpose of the hearing was to gather suggestions for improving the program when it comes up for reauthorization next year.

Both Ms. Hale and representatives from the Council for Exceptional Children, an organization representing 54,000 special educators, parents, disabled children, and researchers in the field, contend federal lawmakers should extend the timelines for the program and provide continued funding to states8showing "good faith" efforts to put their new systems in place.

"Experience is showing it's taking longer than actually planned," said George Jesien, who represented the cec's early-childhood division at the hearing.

According to a recent survey conducted by Ms. Hale's group, four of the 27 states responding are wavering in their commitments to the program. The number was surprisingly high, some observers said.

And officials in every state surveyed said funding was the "most challenging" issue they confronted in their efforts to set up a system.

Underlying their concerns, some groups and observers said, are fears that the federal government will not keep up its part of the bargain. They point out that, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975, lawmakers said the federal share of the cost of educating handicapped children would reach 40 percent. In practice, it has never exceeded 12 percent.

This year, however, the Congress appropriated $117 million for the early-intervention program--a 31 percent increase over the previous year and one of the largest increases for any education or health program this year.

The increase indicates that, thus far, federal lawmakers have "put their money where their mouth is," according to Robert Silverstein, director of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the program.

"I would hope that the notion of simple extensions of a timeline would be flatly rejected by the Congress," he said. "On the other hand, if there was some kind of principle of differential funding to reward those states who are on time, it might be something appropriate for Congress to consider."

Any extension of the timelines is expected to generate opposition from some groups that lobby on behalf of handicapped children and their families. They fear that extending the deadlines could cause states to put off serving children who need help immediately.

"We think five years is a long enough time to develop a program," Margaret Lober of the National Mental Health Law Project said at the hearing.

The timeline issue was only one of several concerns raised at the hearing. Some special-education groups noted, for example, that incentives were needed to encourage states to serve children who are at risk of developing disabilities. Current law now gives states the option of including those infants in their early-intervention programs.

But Judy Schrag, director of the Education Department's office of special-education programs, said that only a handful of states apparently intend to do so.

"There's definitely a conservative economic mood out there," said Ms. Schrag. "All of us are concerned not only because we need to serve at-risk children, but also because of reports that there are large groups of other children out there who need to be served, such as crack babies."

The infant-and-toddler program was created as part of the Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act of 1986. The backbone of the law is a requirement that states serve all disabled 3- to 5-year-olds or risk losing special-education funding for that population. Nearly every state has changed its laws to entitle those children to special education, and those that have not are moving to do so.

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