Effort To Revise Mass. Spec. Ed. Law Fails; Study Planned

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Massachusetts lawmakers have abandoned plans to redefine their special education policy after critics voiced concerns that proposed changes could harm the state's most vulnerable students.

Members of the legislature's joint education committee voted 10-6 last week to withdraw a proposal in a special education reform bill that would have replaced the state's 25-year-old mandate that public schools provide special education students a "maximum feasible" education with the lower federal standard of guaranteeing a "free and appropriate" public education.

Instead, the committee decided on Feb. 9 to underwrite an independent study--to be completed by next February--looking at how imposing the federal standard would affect the state's 154,000 students with disabilities. The annual per-pupil cost of teaching those students averages about $9,000, but in some cases may soar to $40,000 per year, according to the state education department. ("Lawmakers Advance Proposal To Change Mass. Special Ed. Law," Jan. 21, 1998.)

Since the language change was gutted, the amended version of the reform bill has moved on to the House ways and means committee. The measure would require passage by the full House and Senate before reaching Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci's desk, but insiders say such advancement is unlikely.

High Costs

With some 17.5 percent of its children enrolled in special education during the 1994-95 school year, the Bay State had the second-highest proportion of such students in the nation behind North Carolina, according to the latest available data from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Although the state says enrollment in special education is leveling off in Massachusetts, the costs associated with such programs are soaring, the state education department says.

The proposal to change the special education law has been the subject of intense debate and drew a standing-room-only crowd to a hearing at the Statehouse last month.

Opponents of the change, including a bipartisan group of lawmakers, parents of special education students, and advocacy groups, argued that the proposed standard would diminish the quality of services for special-needs students.

But advocates of the new standard--including Gov. Cellucci, a Republican; John R. Silber, the chairman of the state school board; and outgoing Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci--contend that state law allows children with only slight learning disabilities or behavioral problems to enroll in special education. That, in turn, they say, depletes school budgets and the resources available to the neediest special education students.

"The full range of services available under 'maximum feasible benefit' are also available under 'full and appropriate public education,'" Mr. Antonucci told the education committee last month.

But, he added, "the perception of maximum feasible benefit is that it is an unlimited mandate [when] there are not unlimited funds, nor are there unlimited resources."

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