Agreement Gained On 'Par-Reaching' Handicapped Bill
Would Encourage Services For Preschool Children
In a sweeping bipartisan measure that is expected to sail through the Congress before it adjourns next month, the House and Senate have reached a compromise to provide aid and services to an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 handicapped infants and preschool-age children.
This is a measure that is far-reaching and overdue," said Representative Pat Williams, a Montana Democrat and the legislation's sponsor.
The bill (H R 5520) would amend the landmark Education of the Handicapped Act, adding strong incentives for states to serve 3- to 5-year-old handicapped children by 1991 and to create programs for handicapped infants. Currently, states must serve handicapped 3- to 5-year-olds only if they provide a public education for all other preschoolers.
The House Committee on Education and Labor unanimously approved the bill on Sept. 16, and the measure was scheduled to come before the full House early this week.
''Early intervention represents an enormous cost-savings later on," said Representative Steve Bartlett of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees special education. "It allows individuals to attain their full capacity in a way that would not otherwise be possible. There is no one who opposes this that I know of."
The drive for early education and services for handicapped children began last spring when Senator Lowell B. Weicker, Republican of Connecticut, introduced a measure that--in contrast to the House version-would have required school districts to educate handicapped 3- to 5-year-olds to qualify for any federal special-education aid. A longtime advocate for the handicapped and the father of a handicapped child, Senator Weicker steered the bill (S 2294) to easy passage in the Senate on June 18.
'The Senate had a pretty big stick by saying that all states must service all 3- to 5-year-old handicapped children by school year 1989-1990 or risk losing all their P.L. 94-142 [Education for All Handicapped Children Act] monies Representative Williams said here last week during a legislative conference of the American Association of School Administrators.
"My bill rejects that and expects all states to serve all 3- to 5-yearolds by 1990-91," he continued. "The stick is not the big stick that the Senate had but, rather, simply the loss of the state's eligibility for preschool- incentive grants and a loss of the state's ability to count 3- to 5- year-olds under the basic grant."
In addition, the compromise measure would:
- Create a program of incentive grants to encourage states to provide early-intervention services for handicapped children from birth to age 2.
- Reauthorize Parts C through G of P.L. 94-142, which include some discretionary and research-and-development programs. Those programs are set to expire Sept. 30.
- Establish a national clearinghouse to encourage students to seek careers in special-education.
- Require schools to include developmentally delayed children in any program for 3-to 5-year-olds, and include as handicapped infants those with acquired, as well as congenital, conditions.
- Change the 12 percent special education enrollment cap imposed on states by P.L. 94-142. States would be allowed to count the 3- to 5- year-old population in determining their funding level under the basic act.
- Create a trigger that would allow states to postpone for one year the requirement to provide aid to 3- to 5- year-olds during 1990 if the Congress does not appropriate the following minimum funding levels for the new program: a total of $656 million in fiscal years 1987, 1988, and 1989 and $306 million in 1990.
- Create a program of grants to encourage the development of technology, media, and materials for special education. Because the market for such products is small, few commercial manufacturers now produce them.
"All sides of the issue have been made both happy and unhappy over various aspects," said Michael Casserly, director of legislation for the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 37 of the nation's biggest school districts. "It's a classic political compromise."
Until early last week, the fate of the measure had been uncertain. Earlier in the summer, Senator Weicker, eager to pass his bill this year, had considered passing it once again as an amendment to another bill, a committee aide said.
And, with concern over the rising I federal deficit and a crowded, end-of-session schedule for the Congress, some observers doubted the House would take up the legislation this year.
"It would certainly be a landmark accomplishment to create a new program in a time of fiscal restraint," a Senate staff member said.
The legislation has drawn praise from handicapped and special-education groups, who have long advocated early intervention as a way to improve the condition of the handicapped while saving taxpayer dollars.
"It's an excellent piece of legislation that will make a significant difference for kids," said Fred Weintraub, associate executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children.
The bill's final version received a less enthusiastic response from organizations representing school districts, schools, and school administrators- the groups and individuals charged with carrying out the new law.
To them, the biggest worry is money. The Education Department, which opposed the Senate bill, determined that the total annual cost of providing special-education services to a preschool-age child is $7,200. Under the new measure, states can receive federal grants totaling a maximum of $3,800 for each handicapped 3- to 5-year-old.
But the actual appropriation to carry out the program has not been determined. The Senate subcommittee responsible for appropriating the funds, the chairman of which is Senator Weicker, has set aside $230 million. The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, has yet to take up the matter.
"The federal government needs to I fund their mandate," said Claudia Mansfield, government-relations specialist for the American Association of School Administrators. It's not that we don't want to provide the services. But that's less money than goes to the rest of the education program."
Education groups drew a parallel with federal handling of P.L. 94-142, pointing out that the Congress has never appropriated funds for more than 12.5 percent of the per-pupil cost of the program.
Also, estimates of the number of additional children to be served under the measure vary considerably, from the E.O.'S figure of 70,000--considered to be the most reliable to early Congressional Budget Office estimates of 265,000 to 600,000. The final number will determine how thinly the funds will be spread, interest groups said.
"The proof is in the pudding, and we haven't got the pudding yet," Mr. Weintraub of the Council for Exceptional Children said.
Currently, an estimated 260,000 handicapped 3- to 5-year-ols--or 70 percent of the handicapped, preschool population-are being served, Representative Williams said. Nineteen states mandate services for 3- to 5-year-olds, and 29 states serve 4-year-old handicapped I children.
Vol. 06, Issue 03, Pages 1, 20