Mass. Lawmakers Vote To Change Special Ed. Standard
In a major policy shift, Massachusetts would abandon what is generally considered the nation's most generous special education standard, under legislation recently approved by state lawmakers.
Legislative language tacked on to a budget bill would stipulate that school districts in Massachusetts no longer have to provide the "maximum feasible benefit" to their students with disabilities, starting in January 2002. The nearly 27-year-old mandate was too costly and went beyond the requirements under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, critics argued.
As of last week, the state's Republican governor was expected to sign the budget bill, which the legislature approved last month. In dropping its current special education guideline, Massachusetts would adopt the federal IDEA standard, which requires that public schools provide a "free, appropriate public education" to disabled students. Schools in the rest of the country follow the standard in the IDEA, the nation's main special education law.
The Massachusetts legislation also would tighten certain special education eligibility standards, which is seen as another means of controlling rising school costs.
Earlier this year, a bill to adopt the federal standard died in a legislative committee. The new language was added to the state's $21 billion budget for fiscal 2001, which passed both houses of the legislature on July 18 by substantial margins.
Sen. Steven A. Tolman, a Democrat, said he voted against the state budget because he disagreed so strongly with the switch to the federal standard. He was the only Senate Democrat to vote against the budget measure.
"I think it is mean-spirited," he said, adding, "How do we look at children with disabilities in the eye, and tell them that we have 21 billion priorities, but they are not one of them?" Mr. Tolman said he plans to introduce legislation next year to switch the state back to the "maximum feasible benefit" standard.
Mr. Tolman added that it would be sufficient simply to tighten the eligibility requirements for special education. That, he said, would mean fewer students would qualify for special services.
A state-commissioned report released earlier this year said that drafting stricter special education eligibility requirements would save the state's schools $125 million a year.
The report also said that schools could save an additional $37 million by switching to the federal standard for a "free, appropriate public education." ("Special Education Report Reignites Debate in Massachusetts," March 22, 2000.)
Since 1972, the Bay State has used a general definition of children with special needs. The new legislation, which Gov. Paul Cellucci was expected to sign into law late last week, would adopt the federal definitions for specific learning impairment and emotional impairment.
But the state would maintain its current criteria for other special-needs students, said Connie Rizolli, the research director for the legislature's commission on education.
State Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll called the eligibility change particularly significant. "Our definitions and prototypes have been so broad that kids who are not necessarily disabled are being serviced," Mr. Driscoll said, adding, however, that moving to the "free, appropriate public education" standard would enhance consistency in the way special education is delivered in Massachusetts.
The new legislation would also create a state-run risk-pool program. Districts would have the option of joining the risk pool to help defray extraordinary special education expenses. "It is like an insurance program for really high-cost kids," Ms. Rizolli said.
To help ensure a smooth transition to the new standard, the state education department would be required to hire five specialists to monitor the change regionally. Ms. Rizolli said that the legislation specifically delays implementation until the start of 2002 "so that school districts will have time to understand the implications" of the new standard.
The education department would also be required to develop materials on the rights of students with disabilities. Local districts could use those materials to conduct workshops for parents.
The legislation also stipulates that parents or guardians of students with disabilities would be eligible for a free, independent assessment of their children as long as the families earned no more than 400 percent of the poverty level.
But regardless of the attempts to make a transition smooth, Tim Sindelar, a lawyer for the Disability Law Center, an advocacy group in Boston, said he foresees five to 10 years of litigation as parents fight to retain the services their children now receive.
He added that the legislation "sends the wrong message to the school districts: that we should be doing less, when we should be doing more."
Staff Writer Joetta L. Sack contributed to this report.
Vol. 19, Issue 43, Page 25