States Turn to Spec.-Ed. Programs for Budget Cuts

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For almost the first time since the passage in 1975 of a landmark federal law entitling all disabled children to an education, educators and lawmakers in a number of states are looking for ways to control rising special-education costs.

By all accounts, the new scrutiny on those programs results directly from the economic recession that is hitting so many states this year.

The recession has already forced deep cuts in many other types of education programs. But special education, which is protected by a complex web of state and federal statutes, has been less vulnerable to reductions. The result, many experts say, is a growing sentiment that those programs have not borne their fair share--until now.

"Up until the recession, no one questioned how much money you were spending on this child, because it was the right thing to do," said Mary Beth Fafard, associate commissioner of education in Massachusetts, where the issue has been debated for more than two years.

"Now," she said, "if you have to give up art programs or music programs, people are asking why."

Among the signs of the closer examination being given special education:The New York State Board of Regents in March raised limits on the size of special-education classes, saving an estimated $115 million.

Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts has proposed eliminating some expansive language in the state's special-education statute--a change that could save the state $54 million, according to a controversial estimate. Lawmakers have so far rejected his plan in favor of other cost saving measures aimed at special-education programs.

Pledging to control "the runaway costs" of special education in Pennsylvania, Gov. Robert P. Casey for the second year in a row has proposed a new funding system for the programs.

A Nevada legislative committee, seeking both to save money and to increase the number of programs in the state for children with traumatic brain injuries or serious emotional disturbances, last month approved a plan to transfer responsibility for out-of-district placements for those students from the state education department to the human-resources department, which already oversees comprehensive residential programs for people with similar disabilities.

Some Wisconsin state senators are pushing a proposal to freeze special-education spending at current levels and funnel a proposed $40- million increase for the program to the state's general-education fund.

"We have some serious budgetary problems in our state," said Senator Robert Jauch, a Democrat from Poplar. "The question comes down to, do you use the money to help all kids in most of the school districts or some of the kids in a few districts?"

A 'Full Bucket'

William Schipper, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said state attention to the issue is prompted by more than recessionary pressures. As a proportion of state education budgets, special-education costs have been increasing for at least a decade, according to a 16-state survey by his organization.

In Massachusetts, for example, the share of the education budget devoted to special education has increased from 10.5 percent in 1980 to 16.3 per cent in 1988. In New York, that figure rose from 11 percent to 16.6 percent over the same period.

"The special-education bucket is getting fuller, meaning the number of kids in special-education programs is increasing and there's more demand to have those kids in special education," Mr. Schipper said. "If there is a backlash--and I'm not sure that there is--it would not be surprising."

Those kinds of pressures are exemplified by New York City, where special education accounts for one- quarter of the school budget, which faces potentially drastic cuts.

New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez has said the cuts--estimated to be more than $500 million--could force the school system to take some draconian measures. They include expanding the limit on high-school class size from 34 to 40; eliminating an average of one out of every four guidance counselors, school librarians, security guards, and attendance teachers; and cutting summer-school programs.

"We don't want special education to be artificially protected to the detriment of the rest of the schools," said Robert Terte, a spokesman for the school system.

District officials successfully lobbied the state school board to raise size limits on several types of special-education classes. The board also agreed to consider relaxing some state special-education man dates. State school officials said the changes were in line with a broader plan under consideration for improving education in the state. "We know that local costs can be reduced in ways which do not compromise the quality of children's education experience, and which may even in certain cases enhance it," said Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol.

But local teachers' unions and advocates have already voiced opposition to some of the special-education class-size changes, saying they could jeopardize the quality of education for all students.

'Maximum Feasible Benefit'

In Massachusetts, the cost-saving measures now making their way through the legislature represent the culmination of more than two years of controversy over the cost of educating the handicapped. An above-average proportion of schoolchildren in the state--about 17 percent--are classified as disabled, and many are in costly private-school programs.

The debate was renewed in February, when Governor Weld proposed changing some unique wording in the state's special-education law. The current statute, which mandates placing handicapped children in the environment that will provide them with the "maximum feasible benefit," is seen by many as leading to more extensive and expensive services.

Mr. Weld proposed to replace those words with the language in the federal law, which requires the provision of "a free, appropriate education."

The proposal touched off fierce protests from parent groups and advocates for disabled children.

"This would harm tens of thousands of children throughout the commonwealth without significant cost savings," said Julia Landau, a staff lawyer with the Massachusetts Advocacy Center.

Instead of adopting the Governor's proposal, House members have attached other cost-saving measures for special education to a budget bill. The bill would require a re-examination of the state's eligibility requirements for special education; impose a freeze on rate increases for private special-education schools; require schools to set up pre-referral teams to help struggling students before they are placed in special education; and mandate a study of ways to shift more of the costs for students' medically related services to Medicaid and private insurers.

Now before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the House proposal has won support from a wide range of advocacy groups.

A 'Sophie's Choice'

Even so, parents and advocates in Massachusetts, as well as in other states, contend special education has been unfairly blamed for state fiscal problems.

"When the fiscal situation is desperate, the people who usually get hit first are the most disenfranchised," said Artie Higgins, project director of the parent-training and information project for the Federation for Children with Special Needs in Massachusetts.

At the local level, advocates say, many parents are still fighting to get appropriate services for their children.

Moreover, they say, the Congress, as well as some states, has never fully funded special-education programs. Federal lawmakers in 1975 pledged to bear up to 40 percent of the cost of the programs, but actual federal-funding levels have never exceeded 12 percent.

The greater problem, the advocates contend, has been that all of education has been underfunded, creating greater competition for fewer dollars.

"We're forcing school districts to make a 'Sophie's choice,"' Ms. Fafard said, referring to the William Styron novel in which a Polish woman must decide which of her two children will be saved from a Nazi death chamber. "We shouldn't have to do that."

Vol. 10, Issue 38, Page 16

Published in Print: June 12, 1991, as States Turn to Spec.-Ed. Programs for Budget Cuts
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