Chapter 1: Need for Separate Handicapped Program Again Up for Discussion

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When the Chapter 1 handicapped-education program was created 25 years ago, it broke new ground by providing funds for states to use to educate children with disabilities.

But today, some federal officials contend, the program may be beside the point.

Sentiment is growing among a number of lawmakers and federal officials to either overhaul the little-known program, phase it out altogether, or merge it with the much larger federal special-education program created under the Education of the Handicapped Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The program's fate was nearly decided last year when the House Appropriations Committee, in a move that surprised some special-education advocates, proposed consolidating the two special-education programs, as had been suggested by the Bush Administration.

The recommendation caused an uproar among special educators and advocates for the handicapped nationwide. And the program was restored in conference meetings with Senate leaders, who argued that the matter required more careful deliberation.

This year, however, the Chapter 1 handicapped program is under siege again. The Education Department, in its latest budget proposals to the Congress, has recommended that funding for the program, which currently receives nearly $150 million, be reduced by $23.2 million and that it be phased out altogether by 1996.

"This has been a contentious issue," said Robert Silverstein, director of the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy. "It will definitely be on our plate for discussion purposes this year."

Becoming Overshadowed

Federal officials have been questioning the need for the separate Chapter 1 handicapped program since the passage of the eha in 1975. The landmark special-education program created under that law quickly dwarfed the Chapter 1 program in terms of both breadth and funding level.

While the Chapter 1 program gives states the option of participating, the 1975 law requires schools to serve disabled students and provides massive sums of money to help do the job.

The Congress has never footed 40 percent of the bill, as promised, but the program, now known as idea, is the second-largest federal precollegiate-education program, exceeded only by the main Chapter 1 program serving non-handicapped disadvantaged children.

Idea is currently funded at nearly $2 billion, compared with $148.9 million for the Chapter 1 handicapped program.

According to a Congressionally mandated study by the General Accounting Office, both programs provide similar kinds of services to a wide range of children with disabilities.

The federal watchdog agency noted in its study, however, that services to the Chapter 1 handicapped children "tend to be more frequent or more intensive."

As early as 1977, the G.A.O. proposed merging the administrative functions of the two programs. Its most recent study on the subject, released 11 years later, continued to expand on that recommendation.

The more "frequent and intense" nature of the kinds of services Chapter 1 students receive is a reflection of the population it is intended to serve: students with severe disabilities.

The original purpose of the law was to prod states to develop educational programs for children confined to state-operated or state-supported institutions where most severely handicapped children are served. A "transfer" provision later added to the law was designed to encourage states to move many of those children into local school districts by allowing the funds to, in effect, "follow" the students.

The law never specified, however, that the money was to be used exclusively for children with severe disabilities. Consequently, the funds buy services for a wide range of disabled children from birth to age 21.

Children Most in Need

Most of those services are supplemental in nature, the gao says. They range from occupational and physical therapy to counseling and music therapy.

"These are services which may not be required to provide a basic, appropriate education but may make a qualitative difference in the lives of children," said Linda Lewis, who, as associate director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, last year lobbied to retain the program.

For the most part, those services still go to seriously disabled children.

In recent years, however, the gao contends, states have increasingly used the money for mildly or moderately handicapped students as well.

Part of the reason for the new influx of less severely handicapped students has been a growing tendency in some states to use Chapter 1 funds for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with disabilities.

Up until 1986, when the Congress amended idea to provide strong incentives for states to serve their youngest handicapped citizens, no funds were available under that special-education program for children younger than school age. Even some of the new infant-and-toddler programs provide only "glue money" intended to help states plan a system for serving that population but not to fund those services.

According to the Education Department, services for 37,000 children age 2 and under were funded through the Chapter 1 handicapped program last year.

According to the gao, more than half of children age 5 and under who are being served through the program have mild or moderate disabilities--and not the serious handicaps envisioned by the framers of the program.

'Bizarre' Funding Formula

Federal officials also complain that funds for the Chapter 1 program are distributed unevenly among the states.

Because of a funding formula described by one Congressional aide as ''bizarre," some states receive as little as $120,000 through the program, while others collect more than $29 million. Four states that count moderately handicapped children in the program receive nearly half of all program funds distributed nationally, according to the gao.

For states that have chosen to maximize use of the program, one attraction may have been that they receive more money for every handicapped pupil served through Chapter 1 than they do under idea.

While the amount varies widely across states and school districts, states received an average of $580 for every student in the Chapter 1 handicapped program during the 1988-89 school year. The average per-pupil allocation for programs funded under idea, in comparison, was $331 that year.

In arguing that funding for the Chapter 1 program be phased out, Judith A. Schrag, director of the Education Department's office of special-education programs, said, "The need for differential funding was important in the past when it was needed to start up funding for school districts."

"It is our opinion that the original intent of the Chapter 1 handicapped program has been met," she added. "That is, children across the country have been de institutionalized and become part of ongoing special-education programs."

A Close Call

Despite longstanding skepticism about the value of the program, the House Appropriations Committee's action last year was, in the words of one advocate, "the closest it ever came to disappearing off the face of the earth."

One Congressional staff member said the panel chose last year to propose merging the two programs because the committee was also recommending a major funding increase in general special-education aid to states that would have more than offset any loss of funds for the Chapter 1 program.

"It was an unusual opportunity," he added.

The committee had proposed increasing special-education grants to states by $857 million. The amount eventually approved by the Congress was closer to $700 million, but there was a major increase in a separate federal program for infants and toddlers with disabilities.

The close call prompted advocates to form an informal national group to review the Chapter 1 program. The group, which includes representatives from nasdse, the Council for Exceptional Children, some state schools for the deaf and blind, and state Chapter 1 coordinators, has met twice since November.

"We haven't made any recommendations yet, but what we found was a consensus that there is still a need for the program," Ms. Lewis of nasdse said. "It really, in the best sense of federal support, helps to sustain services to children who might not always be covered under other statutes."

Both special-education advocates and Congressional sources said they are uncertain what will happen to the program in budget negotiations this year.

The Education Department's latest budget proposal, like many proposals that have come before it, would gradually phase out the program with no significant infusion of federal money in other special-education programs. The change, Education Department officials calculate, would mean a net loss in special-education funds next year for four or five states.

But, as one Democratic appropriations aide said, any action on that proposal would depend on how much money would be made available to offset any losses.

"The ease with which the program could [make the] transition is influenced by the amount of money you have in the program over all," he noted.

At least one subcommittee staff member, however, disagrees. Mark Weston, a Republican aide on the appropriations panel, said the special-education advocates may have passed up "the chance of a lifetime" by not accepting the consolidation when it was accompanied by a major funding increase.

"Now, they'll ultimately end up having to accept a merger but not having the money," he said.

"If this ever came to a vote on the House floor," he said, "you'd have members from four or five states pitted against everyone else."

He added, "Who do you think is going to win?"

Vol. 10, Issue 35, Page C20

Published in Print: May 22, 1991, as Chapter 1: Need for Separate Handicapped Program Again Up for Discussion
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