Special Education Report Reignites Debate in Massachusetts

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Fueled by a new report on special education costs, a debate is heating up in Massachusetts over legislative proposals that would revamp for the third time in five years the way the state teaches its students with special needs.

A central issue is whether the state should replace its own standard for providing special education services, which requires that students receive the "maximum feasible benefit," with the standard established by federal law. The federal service-level standard, mandating that students be given a "free and appropriate education," is seen by special education advocates as less generous than the state's.

A second major issue is whether the state should tighten eligibility requirements governing who qualifies for special education in the first place.

Massachusetts has the nation's second-highest rate of students classified as needing special education—17 percent—exceeded only by Rhode Island's.

Last week, members of the Massachusetts House and Senate held hearings focusing on both issues. The debate was influenced by the release earlier this month of a report commissioned by lawmakers last December that examined the impact of overhauling the current system.

Savings Foreseen

The report, prepared by McKinsey and Co., an independent New York City-based consulting firm, says the state's schools could save about $125 million a year by tightening up on who gets classified as needing special education, even if the current service-level standard is retained. Such changes would reduce special education enrollment by 30,000 students from the current 165,000, the consultants say.

The report, released March 7, also predicts that Massachusetts schools could save an additional $37 million a year if the state switches to the federal standard.

A previous bipartisan effort to make that switch died in committee two years ago after heated debate. ("Effort To Revise Mass. Spec. Ed. Law Fails; Study Planned," Feb. 18, 1998.)

Three primary pieces of legislation calling for comprehensive reforms to the state's special education system are currently before lawmakers. Two of them, both in the Senate, aim to keep the current standard in place, while a bill in the House would switch to the federal standard.

Rep. Lida E. Harkins, the chairwoman of the joint committee on education and the sponsor of the House legislation, said her bill would save schools the most money because it would both adopt the federal standard and tighten eligibility requirements.

She said local superintendents and special education directors support her measure. Switching to the federal standard would put Massachusetts in line with the rest of the country and avoid future battles over changes to the state's special education program, said Ms. Harkins, a Democrat. "It's a more understandable standard," she said, adding that "people will know more clearly what that standard is."

The report from the consultants says that tightening eligibility requirements would "almost exclusively impact students with specific learning disabilities in regular classrooms," rather than students in self-contained special education programs. The report says the current requirements are unclear.

Richard Robison, the executive director of the Foundation for Children with Special Needs, a Boston- based advocacy group, said special education groups are cautiously willing to compromise on the eligibility requirements, "as long as kids aren't harmed."

But he said the report gave no justifiable reason for switching to the federal standard.

In rallies before last week's hearing, parents and other special education advocates called for keeping the current state standard, and for adding more state money to existing special education programs.

Vol. 19, Issue 28, Page 28

Published in Print: March 22, 2000, as Special Education Report Reignites Debate in Massachusetts
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