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Proposal Seeks To Tighten Spec.-Ed. Eligibility

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In an effort to control the rising numbers of pupils in special education, Massachusetts school officials are proposing to tighten the state's definition of who qualifies for disabled-student programs.

The proposal would be the first change in the state's 20-year-old special-education law, the most expansive state statute in the nation and a model for federal legislation.

"In Massachusetts, it's too easy to have children included in special education in some ways,'' said Mary-Beth Fafard, the associate commissioner of the state education department's division of special education. "We needed to ensure that the program is for children with disabilities.''

The department is required to rewrite the definition of eligible students under a law signed in January by Gov. William F. Weld, a critic of the state's burgeoning special-education enrollments. Some 17 percent of all Massachusetts students are enrolled in special education--the highest percentage of any state. (See Education Week, June 12, 1991.)

The state board of education last month authorized officials to hold hearings on the new definition and draft guidelines for it.

Under the existing law, students qualify for special education if they have a "temporary or permanent adjustment difficulty'' that prevents them from making "effective progress in regular education.''

Emphasizing 'Disability'

The proposal would qualify a child only if he or she, "because of a disability consisting of a developmental delay or an intellectual, sensory, neurological, emotional, communication, physical, specific learning or health impairment or combination thereof, is unable to progress effectively'' in the regular classroom.

"The emphasis is on the word 'disability' so that when you're looking at a child, you're looking at traits of impairment and you're not looking at generic remedial education for all kids with learning differences,'' Ms. Fafard said.

To strengthen the regular classrooms serving children who would no longer be eligible under the new definition, the legislature is also considering proposals to provide special training for classroom teachers and administrators and to institute "instructional-support teams'' to get help for children before they fail.

While they agree with the goal of the changes, advocates for disabled students said they have concerns about the new definition.

Julia Landau, a staff attorney for the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, said the shift toward a more categorical definition is causing some uneasiness.

"Sometimes labeling becomes a way of limiting the perceived potential for children,'' she said.

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