Certification for Spec.-Ed. Teachers Sparks Debate in 2 States

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Separate debates in Vermont and New Jersey over the placement of public-school special-education students in private schools are raising anew questions about the kind of training necessary for the teachers who work with those students.

Although the arguments in both states are colored by local complexities, the question at the heart of the debate is one that private-school educators and their advocates say could affect other states as well: Should private-school teachers who work with handicapped students meet the same standards as special educators in the public schools?

"Private schools are not regulated by the state now," said Gerard Naples, a New Jersey assemblyman who is pushing to place more handicapped students in private schools in his state. "Why should they be regulated for special-education kids?"

Nationally, only a small percentage of special-education students are educated at public expense in private-school settings.

Most of those children either have very rare disabilities or handicaps so severe that their local school systems cannot meet their needs. Typically, such pupils are placed in special schools for handicapped students--many of which are already staffed by teachers who have been certified by their states to teach special education.

But some mildly handicapped students are taught in regular, academic private schools or special schools for learning-disabled or emotionally troubled youngsters. Sometimes staffed by professionals who are not certified in special education, these schools offer students the smaller classroom settings, more structured environments, or extra help they may need in order to succeed academically.

In Vermont, which ranks fourth nationally in the number of special-education students placed in private schools, such placements are a longstanding tradition.

"As a rural state, school districts [here] often use independent schools because there are no public schools around that can do the job," explained David Wilson, president of the Vermont Independent School Association and headmaster of a small private school that accepts some handicapped children from the public system.

But Mr. Wilson and other private-school educators say that tradition could come to an end as a result of a new effort on the part of Vermont authorities to overhaul the state's special-education and teacher-certification standards.

'Alarming' Precedent?

As part of that process, state school officials last year asked federal special-education officials to clarify existing federal statutes governing the preparation of personnel working with publicly funded special-education students in private schools.

The reply, issued last month by Judy A. Schrag, director of the U.S. Education Department's office of special-education programs, stated that state education agencies "must insure that personnel providing special education and related services to children with disabilities" who have been placed in private schools at public expense meet the same personnel standards that apply to special educators in the public schools.

Vermont officials responded by signaling to private-school educators their intent to take steps to comply with that part of federal special-education law as they revise their own state standards.

"It may be that after we change a few rules about certification and supervision that the schools won't really look that much different than they do now," said William J. Reedy, who is the legal counsel to the state education department.

But private schools in the state, joined by the National Association of Independent Schools, see the effort as an intrusion on their independence.

"The potential threat is that we may be unable or unwilling to meet this requirement and drop our programs for special-education students," Mr. Wilson said.

Added John W. Sanders, vice president of the nais: "This is alarming to us in the sense that it could set a precedent."

New Jersey Law

The debate in New Jersey, meanwhile, has revolved around a new state law allowing public-school students to attend accredited independent schools when neither public schools nor private, state-approved special-education schools meet their needs.

The regulations governing that law, issued in June, would require all private-school educators who work with these children to meet the same state certification standards as special educators in public schools.

Officials of the state board of education said the requirement, which was not part of the original legislation, was added in order to comply with federal special-education law.

But Mr. Naples, who is chairman of the Assembly's education committee, contends that the certification rule thwarts the intent of the state law.

"The New Jersey State Department of Education has boldly, and arrogantly, I might add, promulgated regulations to effectively render the law at issue nonexistent," charged Mr. Naples, a Democrat from Trenton, in a letter.

The assemblyman has written to federal special-education officials, asking for their interpretation of the issue.

Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding the debates in Vermont and New Jersey, it was unclear last week how much impact U.S. Education Department rulings there would have in other states. The federal regulations on preparation of special-education personnel were issued more than a year ago as part of the Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act of 1986. (See Education Week, May 3, 1989.)

And, while the new rules were controversial at the time, many states, as Mr. Reedy pointed out, "have been living within them."

Federal special-education officials said last week they would continue to answer questions on the issue from states "on a case-by-case basis."

Vol. 10, Issue 4

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