News in Brief: A Washington Roundup

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Guidelines Released

The Social Security Administration has released new eligibility guidelines that will eliminate monthly cash benefits for about 135,000 mildly disabled children.

About twice that many will receive notices that they may be affected by the new rules and must be re-evaluated, Social Security officials said last week.

Most of the children affected have mental impairments, mild learning disabilities, or behavioral disorders. Under the welfare law signed last year by President Clinton, a child must have "marked and severe functional limitations" to qualify for the payments, known as Supplemental Security Income.

The agency was charged with rewriting the disability guidelines when Mr. Clinton signed the law. Those guidelines could have cut from the rolls as many as 200,000 of the estimated 965,000 children who receive benefits. ("Plan To Cut Disability Benefits in the Works," Jan. 22, 1997.)

"We have crafted policy guidelines that, I believe, meet the letter and spirit of the law while protecting the rights of children and families," Shirley S. Chater, the commissioner of Social Security, said in a statement.

Mr. Clinton's proposed 1998 budget, also released last week, would continue Medicaid coverage to children who lose cash benefits under the new rules.

The rules have better guidelines to evaluate children with rare or recurring disabilities, and will not affect children with severe disabilities such as Down's syndrome, Ms. Chater said.

IDEA Costs Questioned

Some parents of disabled children try to circumvent special education law to place their children in expensive private schools, then coerce school districts into paying the bill, members of a House panel charged last week.

They said the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should help districts shield themselves from lawsuits by parents seeking premium services for their disabled children.

Those parents pay for their children's tuition, then demand reimbursement from the district because the public schools cannot offer comparable services, members of the subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families said during a hearing on the reauthorization of the IDEA. ("Discipline Again To Top Special Ed. Debate," Jan. 29, 1997.)

"Something's happening here to dramatically drive up costs," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

Other members said private schools were "cropping up all over the place" in their districts to cater to disabled children.

But Judith E. Heumann, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said the number of lawsuits against districts remains "infinitesimally small"--averaging two to three per state each year. That compares to the 5.8 million students served under the IDEA. About half the cases are decided in favor of the school, she added.

Who pays for special education services was the hot topic at the House's first hearing on its reauthorization bill. Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., the chairman of the subcommittee, said his goal is to send HR 5 to President Clinton within a few months.

But that will not happen without an impassioned battle over how federal funds are allocated to states. The House plan would change the program's funding formula from one based on the number of disabled children to a formula that anticipates a set percentage of students will qualify as disabled and factors in the state's poverty level.

Early Goals To Rise

The first national education goal--getting young children ready to learn--is a top priority for the National Education Goals Panel this year. Three publications on early-childhood education will be released, including guidelines on how young children should be tested.

Meeting in Washington last week, the panel learned how recent discoveries in brain research are being translated into the field of child development and becoming lessons for parents, child-care workers, and educators on how to provide more stimulating experiences for babies and young children.

Movie director Rob Reiner also outlined a nationwide public-awareness campaign about the importance of the early-childhood years.

Meeting Postscript

The Federal Interagency Coordinating Council, the group that seeks to eliminate duplication in federal programs for infants and children with disabilities, will meet Feb. 20 in Washington.

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