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Lawmakers Advance Proposal To Change Mass. Special Ed. Law

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A bipartisan group of Massachusetts legislators introduced a plan last week to overhaul the state's special education system, hoping to curb its spiraling costs and enrollment.

The proposal would grant districts more flexibility in determining placements for students with disabilities while providing more state money for special education.

Massachusetts often has been cited as the state with the highest proportion of students identified as disabled--nearly 17 percent of its students ages 3 through 21, compared with about 10.6 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It also has one of the most expensive systems for serving students with disabilities, costing state residents more than $1.2 billion in 1995, with most of the money coming from local budgets.

"We don't want to lower the standards that are in place, but we want to tell taxpayers that their money is spent in a cost-effective way on children that really need special education," said Rep. Lida Eisenstadt Harkins, a Democrat and one of the bill's sponsors.

Part of the problem, Ms. Harkins said, is that Massachusetts law has liberal criteria for determining services, giving students who are identified as disabled the "maximum feasible" education.

Other critics contend that parents abuse the system by using it to secure expensive tutoring and private school services for their children, at times turning special education into a voucher program for the wealthy.

Prominent Backers

Last year, a broad-based group of lawmakers, school officials, and disability-rights advocates recommended significant changes in the system, and last week's proposal reflects their report. The bill stands a strong chance of passage this year, its supporters say, because it has the diverse group's backing. ("Mass. Coalition Advocates Reform of Spec. Ed. Law," April 2, 1997.)

The bill, supported by several prominent lawmakers, Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci, and acting Gov. Paul Cellucci, a Republican, would adopt the less expansive federal standard for disabled students, which guarantees a "free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment."

That new definition would give administrators greater flexibility when determining a disabled student's placement, Mr. Antonucci said in an interview. "It will help cut costs down," he said.

Schools also would be allowed to give extra academic help in some cases without designating students for special education.

The state's special education law broke ground in civil rights for the disabled when it was put into place 26 years ago. And while advocates for the disabled concede there are some problems, they say that lawmakers must be careful to protect disabled students.

"Massachusetts has been a leader in special education and has done really fine work for their students in general," said Jay McIntire, a policy specialist for the Council for Exceptional Children, based in Reston, Va.

Reducing Evaluations

In what is likely to be one of the most debated aspects of the proposal, districts would no longer have to pay for a second evaluation for students with suspected learning disabilities or emotional and behavioral problems.

Critics charge that parents now are allowed to shop for a sympathetic evaluation at public expense with the second-opinion guarantee, but disability groups argue that parents need such a safeguard.

"We feel if we do the first evaluation properly, we won't have problems," said Mr. Antonucci, who added that parents would still have the right to appeal for a second opinion.

Under a proposed new formula, districts could be reimbursed by the state for up to 80 percent of costs for approved residential placements for some severely disabled students. The state now automatically pays half of all costs for residential placements, giving the funds directly to the private schools involved. Districts pay the other half.

The bill contains a "hold harmless" provision so that districts would not see funding losses. Other parts of the bill call for better training on evaluations and inclusion strategies, allowing districts to collaborate in applying for special education grants, and allowing children to receive extra reading instruction without being labeled as disabled.

Julia K. Landau, a lawyer with the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, a children's advocacy group in Boston, said her group is skeptical that changing the standard would actually save money.

The proposal would require state education officials to evaluate the changes and costs during the first three fiscal years after a new system was adopted, as well as provide an annual report to the legislature.

Ms. Landau's group also believes that parents have been unfairly portrayed as manipulative and unreasonable in their use of the current system. Many special education students are first referred for services by teachers and administrators, she pointed out. In addition, the center says many of the increased costs stem from work with more severely disabled students.

This is not the first time the state has tried to reform the system in recent years.

A 1995 proposal by then-Gov. William F. Weld was derailed after disability-rights advocates deemed it too severe.

But Mr. Antonucci and others say that this year's legislation has a much greater shot at passage. "If we're going to do it, we're going to do it now," the commissioner said.

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