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Diverse Group Meets To Hammer Out 'National Agenda' for Special Education

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Stressing the need to include disabled children in school-reform efforts, 42 educators and parents met this month to begin the process of setting a "national agenda'' for the field of special education.

The three-day meeting in Charlottesville, Va., was organized by the U.S. Education Department's office of special-education programs. Department officials said they hoped the agenda, once completed, would provide a common focus for a field that is often divided over the best means of educating disabled children.

Toward achieving that end, the conference participants represented a wide range of viewpoints. They included disability-rights advocates, parents, principals of schools for the deaf and blind, regular and special educators, and academic experts.

"All of us get wrapped up in our own little piece of the action,'' said one participant, Martha Ziegler, the executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs. "I thought it was amazing how much consensus there was.''

Consensus Points

Participants agreed, for example, on the need to strengthen advocacy for special education by contacting legislators and by training young people with disabilities to lobby for themselves.

The group also voiced support for cx12p4 el-40lgreater collaboration among all the federal and state agencies that serve disabled children and their families and for helping improve disabled children's access to the technology and devices they need in school.

All the participants said research in the field should more actively involve practitioners.

There was also consensus on the need to revise state and federal funding systems for special education so that children do not have to be identified with stigmatizing labels.

"There's too much emphasis on categories right now and not enough on matching services to kids,'' said Kevin Dwyer, the chairman of the governmental and professional-relations committee of the National Association of School Psychologists and a participant at the meeting.

The group failed, however, to reach agreement on the single most controversial and emotional issue fragmenting the field: inclusion.

Some advocates of inclusion maintain that disabled children should be taught entirely in regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools rather than be pulled out for special help in separate resource rooms. Other special educators say a full range of special-education services is needed because some children may need more intensive help in separate settings.

"We may not come to consensus on that,'' said Judy Schrag, who directs the federal office of special-education programs. "But what we might come to is an appreciation of the differences.''

The Political Factor

Ms. Schrag said smaller task forces will be working over the next several months to develop positions in all of the areas the group identified. Te full forum, she said, will meet again in April or May.

Some participants expressed concern, however, over the late start of the process.

As of late last week, President Clinton had not named his appointments to top special-education positions in the Education Department. Conference participants said they feared that once appointed, the new federal officials might not continue the agenda-setting project.

However, Ms. Schrag, who was appointed by President Bush, said it would be carried on by career civil-service employees in the department who are remaining in their jobs and by the organizations involved.

"This is a national agenda--not a federal agenda,'' she added.

"We could not have done this a year ago or six months ago,'' Ms. Schrag said. "Now there is much more concern about special education being included in education reform. People are feeling that reform is occurring everywhere and there are some good examples where special education can be a part of that reform.''

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