Mass. Coalition Advocates Reform of Spec. Ed. Law

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Special education is often a touchy subject for educators, policymakers, and parents. But in Massachusetts, where the state's expansive special education law served as a model for federal legislation on educating disabled children, the issue resonates with particular force.

Last month, a coalition of 15 groups representing school administrators, teachers, parents, and advocates for children with disabilities--groups that for years have butted heads over special education--issued a joint proposal to reform the state's special education system. The agreement followed months of work with a mediator to reach a consensus.

"Probably the last time we were all on the same page, when we were all in a unified voice, was trying to get this basic law passed," said Julia K. Landau, a lawyer with the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, a Boston-based child-advocacy group that helped form the proposal. The state's special education law was passed in 1972, three years before a landmark federal special education law opened school doors nationwide to children with disabilities.

"It's really the first time we've come together since then," Ms. Landau said. "It's striking that we've been on opposite ends of the table for 25 years."

The plan--which calls for the state to tighten special education eligibility, reform discipline and independent evaluation procedures, and appropriate more money, among other steps--is intended to shape debate over how to change special education and the way it is financed. Massachusetts officials are considering changes in the system amid criticism that the special education program enrolls too many children and places too high a financial burden on local districts.

Seventeen percent of all Massachusetts students are enrolled in special education--the highest percentage of any state.

Attacking Backlash

The state special education law has undergone major changes only once, observers say, in 1992 when lawmakers moved to narrow the definition of who qualifies for special education. ("Proposal Seeks To Tighten Spec.-Ed. Eligibility," Apr. 8, 1992.)

Gov. William F. Weld put forward a plan in 1995 that eventually fizzled. While many criticized it as being too draconian, some provisions had won support. The way the plan died illustrates how polarized the special education issue had become, said Peter Finn, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

The drill was this: A bill was introduced, throngs of advocates and parents of disabled children swarmed the Statehouse for hearings (often facing off against school officials), lawmakers were spooked, and the matter was put off.

Those dynamics, both advocates and school officials said last week, have made it virtually impossible to effect change, even changes both sides agree would improve special education. Simply defending the status quo has not quelled the backlash being felt in some communities as special education gets pitted against regular school programs in the battle for scarce resources, observers said.

"We realized we'd have a much better chance of getting things passed if we could get everyone together and have a meeting of the minds," Mr. Finn said. "And this time, I think the parent advocates realized it was more likely the legislature was going to actually do something."

Both sides, it appears, see the writing on the wall.

Gov. Weld, a Republican, has continued his call to bring down special education costs and clarify eligibility rules. As early as next month, Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci plans to recommend changes in special education regulations for the state school board to consider. And a legislative special education commission--formed as a result of the 1995 legislative debate--plans to put forward its own recommendations in June.

Change of Standards?

Coalition members hope their plan will provide political cover for legislators loath to get beaten up by parents for going too far to change the law, or by school officials for not going far enough. While many state leaders applauded the group's efforts, the steep price tag--up to $100 million a year shifted from the local to the state level--makes the plan a tough sell.

"It's a positive sign that there's more or less broad recognition that the current state of affairs is not working here," said Michael J. Sentance, Mr. Weld's education adviser. "We also recognize that it is a compromise proposal, which means that it probably involves less change than one would hope for."

The idea is for lawmakers to move on some of the quick-fix provisions and save the big-ticket items for further debate, Mr. Finn said.

One of the biggest issues is "maximum feasible benefit." State law calls for disabled children to be placed in programs that will provide them with that benefit--a standard many say leads to more extensive and expensive services. Mr. Weld and others have called for the state to adopt the federal law's language, which requires that children be provided a "free, appropriate public education."

The coalition plan calls for the state to commission a study that includes the cost implications for moving to the federal standard.

"It's clearly a higher standard," Ms. Landau said of the current state law. "But it's not at all clear that it's a higher standard that leads to higher costs."

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