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Special Educators Fear Impact of Rules on Early Intervention

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WASHINGTON--State coordinators of programs for disabled infants and toddlers are complaining that proposed federal rules could provoke some states to abandon their fledgling efforts.

Under the federal infant and toddler program, every state is setting up a comprehensive system for serving disabled children from birth until age 2.

The 1986 law that created the program gave states the option of deciding whether to serve only children with diagnosed disabilities or to include those--such as low-birthweight babies or children who were prenatally exposed to drugs--who are at risk of developing disabilities.

But in proposed rules to implement 1991 amendments to the law, the Education Department said states must serve children with "multiple risk factors'' as well.

The regulations, published in the Federal Register in April, also said that states could be required to provide technological or medical devices to children who need them to benefit from education.

State coordinators of the programs have complained in letters in response to the proposed rules that they would expand the program too far, too fast, and at a time when many states are in financial distress.

"This language change would greatly expand the pool of eligible infants and toddlers and could possibly prevent Georgia from continuing to participate,'' wrote Joan A. Jordan, the director of the division for exceptional students in Georgia's education department.

Other state coordinators said they feared that the medical devices states could be required to provide might include glasses, wheelchairs, and other equipment that has "traditionally been the responsibility of parents and not education.''

"This appears to place the program at greater risk and potentially compromise the participation of states that are already discouraged by the difficulties of implementation,'' wrote Tennessee's top three officials in charge of early-intervention programs.

Such comments were among more than 150 responses sent to the Education Department this summer in response to the rules. In order to accommodate those wishing to respond, the Education Department extended the deadline for comments 31 days. The comment period ended on July 31.

Final regulations are expected later this year, said James Hamilton, the chief of the early-childhood branch of the Education Department's office of special education programs.

Not all of the comments were critical of the proposal. Some advocates for the disabled and parents said the changes could bring services to a population badly in need of them.

"We have seen all too often in our community children who have multiple risk factors for developmental delays not receiving services because of restrictive eligibility criteria,'' wrote Stuart Kernes, the executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Parent-Child Resource System Inc.

'Not Enough'

Concerns about states' ability to continue participating in the infant and toddler program began to surface more than a year ago in the wake of budget crises in several states.

In response to states' pleas, Congress voted last year to extend the deadline for states to begin providing services for all disabled infants and toddlers. That change is also part of the department's proposed rules.

According to the Education Department, 38 states have requested extensions--some for the second time.

Concern about the rule change comes at a time when federal funding for the program may not be as generous as in the past. In an appropriations bill passed in July, the House set aside $178.8 million for the program--an increase of only 2 percent over the previous year's appropriation. In past years, Congress has approved increases of 50 percent or more for the program.

"Most states are saying that's clearly not enough,'' Mr. Hamilton said.

The Senate has not yet taken up its education appropriations bill.

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