Rising Enrollment and Costs Threaten Special-Education Gains, Study Finds

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The pressure on school districts to contain costs as special-education enrollments expand may undermine the progress that has been made toward providing all such students with the services they need, a five-year study has concluded.

And while "schools are committed to the principle of serving disabled children in the 'least restrictive environment"' and most parents are satisfied with the services their children receive, "serious gaps'' remain in the special-education system, the researchers found.

The $1.9-million study, completed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Commonwealth Fund, found, as has previous research, that wide variations exist in the way that districts classify students who need special services under the requirements of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, pl 94-142.

The study also revealed that parents were often not involved in the planning of their children's educational future, and that some disabled children lack access to adequate health care.

The research was conducted by John A. Butler and Dr. Judith S. Palfrey of the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston, with the help of an advisory committee headed by Dr. Julius B. Richmond, director of Harvard University's division of health-policy research and education.

Fiscal Problem

Their study, which is scheduled to be released later this month, examined 2,000 special-education students between the ages of 5 and 13 in Charlotte, N.C.; Houston; Milwaukee; Santa Clara County, Calif.; and Rochester, N.Y.

As enrollments in special-education programs continue to grow, the report of the study's findings suggests, school budgets may be put under ever-tighter restraints. Nationally, almost 11 percent of all children receive special-education services; between 7.6 percent and 13.4 percent of the children in the five districts studied were classified as eligible for these services.

Because it costs approximately twice as much to educate a special-needs child as a regular-education student, the report notes, mainstreaming "may be applied because of its economic rather than its educational benefits."

It also warns that districts may try to eliminate or reduce certain support services for special-education pupils. Such moves, it notes, "may not put the school district out of compliance with the law [pl 94-142] but may compromise the special-education program's ability to serve children's multiple needs as defined by the law."

Among those services most likely to be eliminated or reduced, the study found, were psychological counseling and access to social workers.

A 'Gray Area'

In the five districts studied, the researchers found gaps in special-education services that they attributed to the variability in the districts' classification and placement of children.

"Some children find themselves in a kind of a 'gray area' with respect to defining their problems and meeting their needs--for example, children with mild mental retardation, children whose emotional problems interfere with learning, and children whose language problems constitute a learning disability," the report states.

In each of the five districts studied, children with a physical handicap made up less than 6 percent of each district's special-education population. In contrast, the researchers found wide variations in the percentage of students who were classified as emotionally or behaviorally disturbed, learning-disabled, or mentally retarded.

"Such data indicate," they write, "that classifying children depends on many factors, some of which are independent of the child's needs, such as economic conditions within the district." On the other hand, the rise in the number of children classified as learning-disabled may reflect, they add, the schools' "positive effort" not to stigmatize children but to provide them with extra help at a time when "other sources of funding have been declining."

Parents Not Involved

The researchers also found that parents are frequently not involved in the planning of their child's educational program. In four of the five districts studied, fewer than half of the parents attended the most recent review of their child's Individualized Education Program, which, according to pl 94-142, must be reviewed at least once a year.

Parents cited such reasons as conflicting work schedules, a lack of transportation or child care, and personal problems, the report states.

It further notes that some special-education students lack access to high-quality medical care.

About 12 percent of the children in the study had no health insurance, and about one-quarter did not have a regular physician. Physicians, the report states, were rarely involved in the development of a child's iep, and were in contact with the schools at all in only 14 percent of special-education cases.

Additional Findings

The study also found that:

The vast majority of special-education students are attending regular schools and attend regular classes for at least part of the day.

Fewer than 30 percent of the children with special needs were diagnosed before the age of 5; most of these children were diagnosed by educators, and not by physicians.

Children with speech impairments, hyperactivity, and other "high-prevalence, low-severity" problems were rarely diagnosed before the age of 3 and some not until 10. About one-fifth of the children with mental-retardation problems were not identified until after they entered school.

The proportion of minority students in special education "was similar to their representation in the overall school population and reflected the local community." About one-third of the special-education students in the five sites were from minority groups, and more than 40 percent came from low-income families.

Only about one-third of all the students studied received any kind of psychological counseling. Family counseling was provided for 10 percent of the students.

Federal aid for special education--nearly $1.2 billion in 1986--represents an estimated 12 percent of districts' costs for such pupils.

Teachers were generally satisfied with students' gains over the course of a year, but they said emotionally and behaviorally troubled pupils improved less than other groups.

The "unfinished agenda" in special education, the study concludes, involves dealing more effectively with the gaps in in-school services; providing more assistance to families with handicapped children; expanding services for very young children; and attacking the problem of insufficient health care in the special-education population.

Vol. 08, Issue 14

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