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Officials Seek More Time To Serve Handicapped Toddlers

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Washington--Federal officials and representatives of education and disability groups who testified at a Senate hearing this month voiced near-unanimous support for proposals to give states more time to put in place new, federally supported programs for infants and toddlers with disabilities.

"Any state that wants to participate should be able to," said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, who chaired the March 15 hearing on the first reauthorization of the Early Intervention Program for Handicapped Infants and Toddlers. "We must find a way to recognize the current fiscal realities while at the same time rewarding those states that are on schedule."

The program, also known as Part H, was established in 1986 as part of a sweeping Congressional effort to prod all states to extend help to their youngest handicapped citizens. (See related story on page 1.)

It provides seed money to help states coordinate a wide range of social, medical, and educational services to handicapped children from the time they are born until they reach age 2.

In the early years of the program, every state participated and each began piecing together its own early-intervention system. But, as the deadline nears by which states must guarantee help for every eligible infant and toddler with disabilities or drop out of the program, a number of states are having second thoughts. According to a recent survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures, as many as 15 to 20 states are considering opting out.

Under the law, by their fifth year of participation, states must begin serving the birth-to-2-year-old handicapped population. Most states are approaching their fourth year of participation, and many have delayed applying for continued funding pending the outcome of the reauthorization process.

"It is now becoming clear," said Tom Gillung, president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, "that the endeavor states have undertaken is far more complex and challenging than originally envisioned."

The state directors and other witnesses who testified at the hearing of Mr. Harkin's Subcommittee on Disability Policy said that lack of sufficient funds is largely responsible for the difficulty states are having in meeting the deadlines in the law.

According to the National Governors' Association, the current economic recession is causing budget crises in as many as 30 states this year. The financial strain has caused states to cut back on programs and shy away from any new mandates for services.

Moreover, said Jonathan Wilson, a local school-board member from Iowa testifying on behalf of the National School Boards Association, federal funds for the program fall far short of the need.

Despite a $40-million increase this year for the program, he said, "the federal government remains very much a junior partner in the education of individuals with disabilities."

States are also having difficulty meeting a requirement in the law mandating the participation of every state agency with responsibility for serving children with disabilities and their families. These coordinated efforts must be led by a single agency, known as a lead agency.

But, as some state directors and health-agency directors pointed out, the lead agencies often have no authority to tell other agencies what to do and must operate through a lengthy process of "compromise, consensus, and negotiation."

Differential Formula?

The support of Senator Harkin, as chairman of the Senate panel charged with the reauthorization, is considered key to gaining additional time for states.

One way to provide that, said Robert Silverstein, staff director of the subcommittee, would be to create a differential funding formula for the program. Under such a mechanism, states lagging behind schedule could continue to participate, but their federal grants would be frozen at last year's levels; the states still on schedule could collect funds at the higher levels allocated for this year. At $117 million, current funding for the program is 47 percent higher than in the previous year.

Mr. Harkin, who is also a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has said he will seek a "significant" increase for the program in the coming budget year.

But Senator Paul Simon, a Democrat from Illinois, told the panel he would oppose any delays.

"Unless there is some evidence I have yet to see, I don't see any reason for backing off of that require4ment," Mr. Simon said.

On another issue, Mr. Harkin said he would favor ways to provide "a smooth transition" as children move from the Part H program into special-education programs for 3- to 5-year-olds. The same law that created Part H also requires states to provide a "free, appropriate" education for that population by next year or risk losing all federal special-education funds targeted to that age group. That part of the law is permanently authorized.

Advocates for disabled children contend that services for disabled 3- to 5-year-olds should look like services for infants and toddlers, rather than special-education programs for school-age youngsters.

Robert R. Davila, the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said he would favor allowing states to use some Part H funds after a child with disabilities turns 3. He said the department also favors giving states more time to get their systems into place.

In addition, Mr. Davila said states should be allowed to provide less-than-full services to children at risk of developing disabilities. Under the law, states have the option of including that group in their programs for infants and toddlers.

The Senate has scheduled no further hearings, in an effort to speed up the reauthorization process and signal to states the need to continue participating in the program. The House Subcommitee on Select Education has scheduled a hearing on the program for April 10.

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