Senate Backs Reauthorization of Handicapped Act

By Jonathan Weisman — October 10, 1990 3 min read

Washington--The Senate last week approved by voice vote the conference report on legislation to reauthorize the Education of the Handicapped Act without a controversial proposal entitling children with attention-deficit disorders to special-education services.

The House was expected this week to give final Congressional approval to the measure, clearing it for President Bush’s anticipated signature.

The four-year reauthorization calls for more that $308 million in fiscal 1991 for discretionary programs under the landmark 1975 law.

The most intense debate on the bill had focused on the House proposal to specifically extend handicapped services to children with attention-deficit disorder.

The House language could have effectively expanded the federal definition of an eligible special-education category to include the disorder.

The proposal was opposed by a wide array of education, mental-health, and civil-rights groups, which feared the new category would swamp special-education programs, spreading federal dollars too thinly and pulling many children--especially those belonging to minority groups--unnecessarily out of regular classrooms. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

Compromise Language

The final version of the bill embodies a compromise, worked out at the staff level, that instructs the Education Department to publish a notice in the Federal Register asking for comments from the field on ways to tighten existing definitions of the disorder. Among other symptoms, current clinical definitions characterize add sufferers as distractible and impulsive, labels that could fit many children with no mental impairment.

The Congress will decide whether to pursue the point further after the comments are in, said Patricia Laird, a senior legislative analyst with the House Subcommittee on Select Education.

The bill also authorizes the Secretary of Education to set up centers around the country to collect and disseminate information on the disorder, which affects an estimated 3 percent to 5 percent of all school children.

“This gives everybody the opportunity to have their say and makes sure the information gets out to those who need it,” Ms. Laird said. “There shouldn’t be anyone out there saying,'I don’t know anything about this disorder.”’

Opponents of the proposal expressed relief, if only for the time being.

“We’re pleased that Congress has deferred action,” said B. Joseph Ballard, director of government relations for the Council for Exceptional Children. “We’re also pleased that Congress has responded to calls for more input from the professional and education community.”

New Programs Authorized

The bill, S 1824, also authorizes funding for several new programs.

The measure provides $6.5 million for research and information on teaching emotionally disturbed children, including grants for the development of curricula.

Also in the bill is a $27.5-million authorization for grants to programs helping disabled teenagers make the transition from school to the outside world. Under the plan, state education agencies, vocational-rehabilitation centers, and nonprofit organizations would be eligible for one-time grants beginning in October 1992.

Up to $19.25 million in new funding would be made available for historically black colleges and universities to encourage more minority students to get special-education degrees. According to the House Education and Labor Committee report, while 28 percent of the children enrolled in special-education classes are black, only 11.2 percent of their teachers are.

The bill also includes language warning educators not to rely heavily on standardized tests to determine which children are in need of special programs.

“Conventional standardized tests are steeped in the ethics and perspectives of the white, middle-class American culture,” it argues.

Ms. Laird noted that the funding recommendations in the bill would not go into effect until implemented through the appropriations process.

Given the federal government’s severe budget problems, appropriations under the bill this year may fall well short of the full $308-million authorization level. Last year, discretionary programs under the act received $182 million.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as Senate Backs Reauthorization of Handicapped Act