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Congress Extends Deadline for Handicapped Program

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Washington--The Congress last week approved an extension of this summer's deadline for states to decide whether to commit to deeper involvement in federal programs for disabled infants and toddlers.

Ready to receive President Bush's signature, the measure would allow states to continue to participate in an early-intervention program for handicapped or developmentally delayed children from birth to age 2 even though the states were not able to keep pace with the five-year timetable set for implementation of the law.

Such flexibility is a boon to states grappling with budget crises or such other barriers as shortages of special-education personnel.

Such factors are causing problems for states faced with needing to switch from the planning stages of the first three years of the program to more extensive--and more costly--participation in the fourth and fifth years, experts said last week.

"It's good news," said John George, governmental-relations liaison for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Now "all states will be able to maintain participation in the program."

The extension means many states coming up on their fourth year in the program will not have to decide whether they can meet the law's mandate of ensuring services for every disabled infant and toddler who qualifies, or whether they must drop out of the program and, therefore, lose all federal special-education funding targeted at that population.

Instead, states could continue their current level of participation for up to two more years--by applying for two one-year extensions--before deciding whether they can fulfill the requirements of the early-intervention program, known as Part H, of the 1986 amendments to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

States were given three years for planning and adopting policies to establish a system that pulls together a wide array of educational, social, and health services for the families of disabled children age 2 and under. (See Education Week, March 27, 1991.)

In the fourth year, states are required to have the system in place and to provide some, but not all, early-intervention services. In the fifth year, states are to provide services to all eligible infants and toddlers and their families.

New Funding Levels Set

Under the measure approved last week, states granted an extension would remain at their current funding level.

Once such states have met the requirements for the fourth or fifth year, their funding would be brought up to the level they would have received had they initially met the requirements.

A bill reauthorizing the 1986 law, sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, is now making its way through the Congress. But when lawmakers realized that the measure--and its provision offering the deadline extension--might not8become law until after the Sept. 30 deadline, the extension provision was attached to another piece of faster-moving legislation, said Pat Laird, a senior analyst with the House Select Education Subcommittee.

The Congress's action was eagerly awaited in special-education circles, which had lobbied heavily for it.

Obtaining the extension was "probably our top priority," Mr. George of nasdse said.

Noting that up to one-third of the states "were in jeopardy and would've been forced out" of the program, William Schipper, executive director of nasdse, said the deadline extension was "essential."

"The differential funding allows states to proceed with the same objectives they set out to attain," Mr. Schipper said. It just gives them "a longer period of time to achieve those objectives."

'An Enormous Relief'

As of last week, 27 states had met the fourth-year requirements and either were holding approved applications for participation or were awaiting federal approval, according to Mr. George.

But nearly half--23 states--had not felt comfortable enough with meeting fourth-year requirements to submit a final application, and three of those had not even submitted a draft application, Mr. George said.

For some states confronting severe budget difficulties, such as California, deeper commitment to the early-intervention program was out of the question.

"We're not in a position to implement new, costly requirements for programs when other worthy health and welfare programs are at risk of substantial and drastic cuts," said Julie Jackson, assistant deputy director of the children and family-services branch of the California Department of Developmental Services.

The problem with moving on to the fourth year of program participation is that complying with Part H requirements costs more than the reimbursement from the federal government, Ms. Jackson said.

She called the Congressional action "an enormous relief."

"This guarantees we can stay in the program--at least for the next two years," Ms. Jackson added.

Meanwhile, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee has approved the measure to reauthorize the 1986 amendments to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

The reauthorization represents "fine-tuning" of the law, said George Jesien, president of the international division for early childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children.

Mr. Jesien said his group was "very, very pleased" with the content of the Harkin-sponsored bill, which he said incorporated many of the group's recommendations for change.

He especially praised a provision that gives discretion to the states to include 3- to 5-year-olds who are experiencing developmental delays among those considered "disabled."

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