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Bill Calls for Review of Special-Education Definition

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WASHINGTON--The Senate last month passed a bill that could lead to a change in the way the federal government identifies children who are emotionally disturbed.

But the measure has encountered opposition from educators who fear that the new definition will increase the number of children qualifying for special education, increasing program costs.

The provision calling for a review of the old definition is included in a bill to reauthorize the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A companion bill passed by the House this summer does not address the issue.

The Senate bill would direct the Education Department to seek public comment on changing the term "seriously emotionally disturbed'' in federal special-education law to "emotionally and behaviorally disordered.''

According to the National Mental Health-Special Education Coalition, the 17 groups backing the change, the second term is more accurate and less stigmatizing.

Under the bill, the department also would have to seek comments on a proposed new definition for "emotionally and behaviorally disordered'' put forward by the coalition. (See Education Week, April 29, 1992.)

The department would have to report to Congress on the result of the public inquiries within a year.

The coalition is lobbying for the change to better target special-education services for emotionally disturbed children, who are considered among the most underserved of all disabled students.

Effect on Services

Sometimes perceived simply as "bad kids,'' experts say, many emotionally disturbed children fall through the cracks because they do not meet the criteria of the current federal special-education definition.

Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, said his organization fears the new definition will funnel children into special-education programs when they might be better served elsewhere.

"Will this make it more likely children will be classified as requiring special-education services rather than general-educational services, alternative programs, or help from other agencies?'' he asked.

"Special education is growing while the amount of federal monies for the program is not increasing and state monies are being cut back,'' he said. "The inevitable effect could be to squeeze general-education budgets further.''

Backers of the change said they do not yet know if it would increase the numbers of students in special-education programs.

While the coalition says more emotionally disturbed children should qualify for special education, said Chris Koyanagi, a co-chairman of the group, "I don't think the definition decides how many kids do or don't get services.''

"I think it has some impact on which kids get services,'' she added. "States have many ways to keep the numbers of kids in special education at levels they can handle.''

A House-Senate conference on the bill is expected to take place later this month.

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