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Conn. Ponders Leaving Federal Program for Disabled Infants

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Connecticut's Governor has decided that a federal program designed to help states serve disabled infants and toddlers has too many strings attached, and he wants out.

The joint education committee of the legislature held a hearing last week on two bills that would revamp the program to play purely by state rules--and with only state money.

By giving up federal dollars, the state would avoid the accompanying federal mandate to serve all eligible disabled children from the time they are born until their third birthdays.

The bills were drafted to implement many of the changes outlined in Republican Gov. John G. Rowland's proposed biennial budget for fiscal 1996 and 1997, which he presented to the legislature last month.

Connecticut would be the first state to pull out of the federal program, state and national observers said. All states currently participate in the program, which serves 144,000 infants and toddlers, according to the U.S. Education Department.

In his proposal, Governor Rowland bemoaned what he described as hefty federal requirements for running a $20 million program that gets only $2.4 million of its funding from Washington.

"Federal procedure and case-management requirements have driven a program model where expense far exceeds benefits," the Governor's proposal says. "It is time that we reconsider carefully whether every federal dollar is worth pursuing."

The state's proposed pullout is especially notable since Mr. Rowland's predecessor, Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a Republican turned independent, was a vocal proponent of the early-intervention program as a U.S. senator.

Some observers suggested that Connecticut's debate might be a harbinger of similar moves in other states, although national observers said last week that they knew of no other states contemplating a pullout.

With debates at the state and national levels increasingly focused on cutting costs and curbing federal and state mandates, costly special-education programs have become popular targets for criticism.

Cost Concerns

In 1986, Congress amended the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide seed money to help states pull together a wide array of educational, social, and health services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families.

The "Part H" program grew out of a consensus that intervening early in the lives of disabled and at-risk children can make a dramatic difference in their educational progress--and perhaps lessen the need for more costly special-education services later.

But when states neared the deadline for guaranteeing services for every qualified infant and toddler and realized the magnitude and cost of the task, some began to think twice. (See Education Week, March 27, 1991.)

Connecticut established its entitlement program through a state law passed in 1993, which sunsets, or expires, in June 1996. The bills under consideration would rewrite the state law.

A spokesman for Governor Rowland underscored that he remains committed to maintaining an early-intervention program--just without a "wide-open federal entitlement."

Currently, the state serves an average of 1,800 children a day under the existing program. The Governor is proposing a 25 percent cut in funding for the program but says the state can serve the same number of children for less money by capping administrative costs.

Under his plan, the state education department's six regional education-service centers would provide all services under the program by contracting with private providers, a mechanism supporters say would save money because the agencies can negotiate competitive rates. Currently, some children are served by specialists in the department of mental retardation.

The bills under consideration would also exclude some services now covered in the federal program, such as family training and counseling and social work, and they emphasize that children would receive services within the scope of available funds.

Hurdles Remain

The pullout proposals still face many hurdles in the Connecticut legislature.

State Sen. Judith Freedman, the Republican chairwoman of the joint education committee, said the panel must approve the bills by April 10 if they are to move through the legislature in time to take effect this year, as supporters intend.

Observers said it was difficult to predict what lawmakers will do, particularly since Republicans control the Senate while Democrats control the House.

Indeed, Senator Freedman, a supporter of the Governor's proposal, said that many details still need to be negotiated.

It is unclear, for example, exactly which infants and toddlers would be eligible for the program, what service standards would be set, and what controls parents would have.

Disability-rights advocates fear that the loss of the federal mandate would mean some children would no longer be served.

Some experts also questioned whether the state has enough early-intervention specialists for a fully privatized system, and argued that the state could cut program costs without leaving the federal fold.

The state has been using one of the most expensive service-delivery models in the country, said Mary Beth Bruder, the director of the division of child and family studies at the University of Connecticut and a member of the national board of the Council for Exceptional Children's division for early childhood.

"We've run this like an open market," she said. "So let's improve it before cutting off our nose to spite our face."

Judith E. Heumann, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services in the U.S. Education Department, decried Connecticut's proposal as shortsighted.

"Of course it concerns me that other states might follow this lead," she said. "But I'm sure other states would be glad to take their money."

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