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Rules on Special-Needs Students in Voc. Ed. Blocked

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With a provision attached to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress has laid to rest--at least temporarily--a pitched battle over the extent to which special-needs students should be guaranteed access to vocational programs and federal vocational-education funding.

The legislation, which Congress sent to President Clinton last week, bars the Education Department from issuing new regulations before the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act is reauthorized next year.

The department had intended to publish rules designed to increase access to vocational education for "special populations," such as students who are economically disadvantaged, limited-English proficient, or disabled, or girls who seek to enter nontraditional fields.

The new rules were intended to reverse regulations issued by the Bush Administration that critics say violate both the Perkins Act and federal civil-rights laws. Department officials apparently also hoped that the new rules would settle a lawsuit filed in 1992 by the Center for Law and Education challenging the Bush Administration regulations.

When Congress reauthorized the Perkins Act in 1990, lawmakers replaced language setting aside separate pots of federal money for programs geared to specific needy populations with language requiring states and districts to insure that their programs meet the needs of those populations.

"They were saying, 'We don't care what dollars you spend where,'" but rather, "'We want you to have a set of goals for your program, and here are some dollars to help,'" said Paul Weckstein, a co-director of the Center for Law and Education.

The controversy centers on a section of regulations the Bush Administration issued in 1992 to implement the 1990 law.

'To the Extent Possible'

The provision states that recipients of Perkins funds are required to provide supplementary services to special-needs students only "to the extent possible from funds received under the act," and that the supplementary-services requirement applies only to "projects" funded under the Perkins Act.

Mr. Weckstein argued that without supplementary services, some students have no meaningful access to programs.

For example, he said, for students who are limited-English proficient, equal access "does not mean 'come sit down in a classroom where you don't understand a word of that language."'

Instead, he said, any school receiving Perkins funds should provide assistance for L.E.P. students in all vocational programs.

The goal of the lawsuit "was to return the regulations to the words of the act, so that recipients were treating their program holistically," Mr. Weckstein said. That way, he added, a special-needs student interested in computer studies should not be told, for example, that, "because we're spending our federal dollars over here in culinary arts, the only place we have space for you in is culinary, so, like it or not, you're going to be a cook."

The center's lawsuit--as well as a letter sent to former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander by Democratic members of Congress in 1992--argues that the current rules miscontrue the Perkins Act.

The law, critics say, requires that programs funded under it have certain attributes, among them enhanced access for special-needs students. But this does not mean that supplemental services can be limited to specific programs funded under the act, or that they are only required to the extent that federal funds are available.

Critics also argue that the Bush Administration's interpretation violates federal civil-rights laws guaranteeing all students equal access to education programs. Indeed, Congress specified in the Civil Rights Restoration Act that these laws apply to all programs of a recipient agency, not merely to programs that receive federal funding.

An Unfunded Mandate?

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley apparently sided with the critics. Administration officials were unavailable for comment, but correspondence with lawmakers indicates that they intended to overturn the Bush rules.

Last summer, Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee argued in a letter to Mr. Riley that "such a change exceeds the scope of the act and creates an unfunded federal mandate on states and local school districts."

The letter cited the National Assessment on Vocational Education, which concluded that special-needs students are overrepresented in high school vocational programs. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.)

"If you're forcing full access for special populations through all programs ... that's a pretty heavy cost burden on the state," an aide to Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., said, adding that states "could be forced to cut back service in other areas that reduce services for the very populations they're supposed to be helping."

Republicans were apparently unable to sway Mr. Riley, but they succeeded in attaching an amendment to the Senate's E.S.E.A. bill in August. The amendment, approved by a vote of 63 to 37, would have halted any new Perkins regulations prior to reauthorization.

The language included in the final version of the bill, however, only restricts rules on the special-populations issue, in case rules for the new school-to-work-transition program refer to the Perkins Act.

Some observers suggested that the measure found bipartisan support because the Perkins Act will be reauthorized next year, and some Democrats were willing to concede the point for now.

"It's a prelude to the policy argument which will occur during the reauthorization," said John F. Jennings, the chief education counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee.

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