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Special Educators Ponder Place in Bush's Education Plan

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Washington--A week after President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander unveiled an ambitious strategy for improving the nation's schools, a group of special educators met here to explore where they fit into that plan and, more generally, into the national movement to reform education.

"Some say that special education has been left out of the reform movement," said Judith Schrag, director of the Education Department's office of special-education programs. "Some say it has certainly not been an explicit part of the discussion."

"The bottom line is, we need to restructure schools so that all children can learn, and that includes children with disabilities," she added.

Ms. Schrag presided at last week's gathering, a national conference organized by the department for state special-education directors. The theme of the three-day meeting was the role of special education in the education-reform movement.

Nearly 4.6 million children nationally are served in school special-education programs, yet few national education-reform reports have mentioned children with disabilities.

Moreover, special educators attending the meeting said, some recent reform efforts, such as the President's "America 2000" plan and the six national education goals adopted by Mr. Bush and the nation's governors last year, even pose some special dilemmas for educators working with children who are disabled.

For example, the President said his plan would encourage greater "flexibility" for schools. Some special educators are concerned, however, that such an emphasis could mean relaxing rules in place now that protect the educational rights of students with disabilities.

"We don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water and lose all of those hard-earned protections," said Frank Limauro, acting bureau chief of the Connecticut Department of Special Education. "Yet there is some consensus that the system is somewhat overregulated."

Some special educators here also questioned the Administration's proposal to develop national tests to measure student achievement in the ''core subjects" of English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. The plan calls for the first of those voluntary tests to be available for 4th graders by September 1993.

"Does he really mean all 4th graders?" asked Martha L. Thurlow, assistant director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota. "Schools might not want disabled students to take the tests, because they pull down the averages."

The degree to which states already include those students in competency tests varies markedly. Some states allow teams of educators at the school level to determine whether to exempt such pupils from mandatory state tests. Others maintain their tests are for all students.

Frank E. New, the state director of special education in Ohio, noted that the national goals present a mixed bag for special education.

"It's fairly easy to envision special education fitting in with a number of them, like the goal that every child should start school ready to learn," he said.

"It gets a little difficult," he added, "when you talk about being number one in math and science or increas4ing the high-school-graduation rate to 90 percent."

Studies have shown, for example, that about 8 percent of special-education students do not drop out of school, but simply "age out," or exceed the school-age limit.

"The likelihood of changing that number to graduates is not good," Mr. New said.

Deputy Secretary of Education Ted Sanders told the group the decision not to explicitly mention disabled or at-risk children in the President's strategy was intentional.

"We thought very seriously ... about focusing our strategy on at-risk children and requiring that these efforts take place in schools where large numbers of those children are," Mr. Sanders said. But "we did not want to convey the idea that those are the only schools in trouble in our society."

Education Department officials noted, however, that special education would not be precluded from the new strategy. Some of the 535 model schools envisioned as part of the "America 2000" plan might even focus on special education, suggested Christopher T. Cross, the former assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

Despite the lack of attention to special education on the part of national reformers, nearly every state has taken steps on its own to include special education in its reform efforts, according to a report prepared for the conference by the regional resource centers and federal centers funded by Ms. Schrag's office.

Many states, for example, are embarking on major efforts to integrate students with disabilities and special services into regular classrooms, the study found. A few others, it found, are developing a set of educational outcomes that truly apply to all students.

Others, such as Connecticut, are requiring general- and special-education teachers to take courses in one another's fields in an effort to upgrade teacher training.

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