Education Opinion

A ‘Contradictory’ Policy on Aid to Handicapped

By Roger W. Brown — March 05, 1986 4 min read

Diane McGuinness makes some valid points in her recent Commentary, “Facing the ‘Learning Disabilities’ Crisis” (Feb. 5, 1986), but her summary of the “confrontation” between Massachusetts and the federal government over special-education funding lacks some important information.

It’s not a simple matter of Massachusetts’ failure to meet a federal requirement-in this case, the ceiling on special-education aid that limits it to 12 percent of a state’s 5- to 17 -year-old population. Here’s what has happened:

When P.L. 94-142 was enacted in November 1975, its stated purpose was to give school-age handicapped children access to a free and appropriate education. Over the years, the enabling legislation became a lever, and states made phenomenal gains in achieving the goals the law set for them.

In December 1983, the Congress revised and extended the law to encourage states to serve handicapped children from birth to adulthood.

The amendments defined a U.S. Education Department priority: to provide comprehensive educational services from birth through adult life.

Many states, like Massachusetts, have accepted these challenges and have aggressively pursued programs for all children. Twenty-three states provide services to children younger than 5 years of age, and 44 states serve young adults over 18.

In short, states have reacted positively to from the Congress, the Administration, and numerous parent and professional groups.

Now, however, this positive response has brought into use a previously overlooked provision of federal law that contradicts the nation’s policy of providing services from birth through adulthood. It’s working like I this:

While the U.S. Secretary of Education is required to provide special-education funds to the states on the basis of “the number of handicapped children aged 3 to 21,” the Secretary may not include more than “12 percent of the number of all children aged 5 to 17 in each state.”

So within the same law there is a flagrant contradiction in policy: For purposes of calculating allocations of funds, the census of 5- to 17 -year-olds is used, rather than the census of 3- to 21-year-olds.

For example, Massachusetts’ most recent child count for special education includes 1,083 children who are 3 years old, 2,257 who are 4 years old, and 5,228 young people who are 18 or older. Therefore, of the 125,971 young people counted under federal law, 8,568 are outside the 5-to-17 age group.

Massachusetts, as one state that has tried seriously to serve both very young children and older students, is now being penalized for helping these population groups-an action that was encouraged by federal statute. The issue is critical for Massachusetts, and may soon become a problem for other states as well. Our dilemma is exacerbated by certain trends:

• Nationally, between 1977 and 1984, the number of 3- to 5-year-olds served under P.L. 94-142 grew by 23 percent, and the number of 18- to 21-year-olds by 70 percent. And those figures do not include increases that have resulted from the most recent federal encouragement to states under the 1983 legislation, P.L. 98-199.

• The number of 5- to 17 -year-olds receiving special education is declining. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 40 states and the District of Columbia have seen declines in this age group since 1980, with the District showing the highest rate of decline (15.3 percent), followed by Connecticut (13.4 percent) and Massachusetts (13.1 percent).

These two factors are placing states’ continued federal support in jeopardy.

Massachusetts is now dealing with recent decisions by the Education Department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services that claim our child count for fiscal 1985 and fiscal 1986 exceeds 12 percent of our 5- to 17-year-old population.

In hard dollars, the Education Department is attempting to collect $676,256 for 1985 and has reduced the 1986 grant by $1,525,82S-a total of$2.2 million. Predicted cuts in the next budget period will push the loss to Massachusetts schools to $4 million. Since 91 cents of every federal dollar that comes to Massachusetts for special education is used for pupil services, this will translate into fewer teachers, fewer aides, and fewer counselors to help children with special needs.

In an effort to resolve the problem, the Massachusetts Department of Education is aggressively pursuing an administrative hearing and negotiation process and is considering litigation.

A technical amendment to P.L. 94-142 is the only long-term solution to this dilemma; enacting such an amendment will require a joint effort by a coalition of states.

If our special-education programs are to serve 3- and 4-year-old children as well as 18- to 21-year-old adults, the formula used to allocate resources must reflect a commitment by the federal government to its own public policy. Allocations of federal dollars must be based on a population census that includes those from age 3 to age 21. Only this kind of change will deal with the reality of the mandates and policy initiated by the Congress.

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 1986 edition of Education Week