Possible changes in handicapped education stir debate

Handicapped schoolchildren are among those that so far have escaped the sweeping changes of the Reagan era. The federal programs mandating special education for them have not been cut by a single dollar since the administration took office early last year.

But now advocates for special-needs children are worried that changes proposed by the Reagan administration may seriously undermine the quality of education for the handicapped.

These advocates say it is highly unlikely that Congress would initiate--and pass--legislation reducing the federal role in education for the handicapped.

But, they say, the Department of Education is preparing to announce regulatory changes in the next few weeks. Although these changes will be subject to congressional veto, advocates for the handicapped say they are worried that, in the crush of other legislation, the changes might be allowed to stand.

''Any attempt at amending the 1975 handicapped children's act would face tough going in the present Congress,'' explains Joseph Ballard of the Council for Exceptional Children. A letter signed by 285 representatives and 59 senators already has been sent to President Reagan opposing budget cuts or statutory changes in handicapped education. Special education lobbyists also note that the chairmen of the committees with authority to bring proposals to the floor of the Senate or House--Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R) of Connecticut and Rep. Austin J. Murphy (D) of Pennsylvania--both oppose the administration's recommendations.

The Department of Education's proposal is expected to include changes in the role of the federal government in administering special education programs in schools. These may include:

* Changing the procedures local schools must follow in reporting to the federal government on special education students.

* Altering the way local agencies divide up the special education costs, as well as changing which agencies, besides the local school, will provide services required by existing federal statutes.

Two federal laws on education for the handicapped are administered by the Department of Education. The first, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requires easy access to classrooms. This law has had the most visible impact of all the legislation to aid the handicapped. It is why schools throughout the country have added ramps and elevators to accommodate wheelchairs , and made other architectural changes.

The second law, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (often referred to by its number, 94-142), requires schools to design a special program for each handicapped child. Estimates of the number of handicapped children served by this program run as high as 4 million.

In its first seven years, 94-142 has made sweeping changes in how schools operate and has radically altered the relationship of the federal government to local schools. It mandates three services school districts must provide to handicapped children:

* Identify handicapped children. The ''child find'' program requires states and local school districts to seek out children who need special help, especially the severely handicapped. These children may be living in institutions or at home and may not be receiving any formal education. The program requires that the cost of educating these students be borne by the local school system, not by parents or other public agencies.

* Draw up an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student. IEPs are the heart of 94-142. After consulting with parents and obtaining written permission from them, schools prepare a learning program. If no agreement is reached between parents and school, the parents may make an appeal through the state education department. They also may take legal action in court.

* 'Mainstream' - place handicapped students in a regular classroom setting. Many youngsters formerly in institutions now are transferred to special classes in regular public schools. Less severely handicapped children formerly in the special classes spend part of their time ''mainstreamed'' in regular classes.

The Department of Education does not see the changes it proposes as undermining either of these laws, a spokesman says.

''Right now, under present law, IEPs are prescribed by the federal government down to the written forms that must be filled out,'' says Jean Tufts, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. ''The new proposals would not tell the state how to provide education and no written document would be required. We seek to give flexibility to the local school district in how it carries out the mandate in 94-142.''

The department would also like to shift the responsibility for paying for special education from the local school districts to the state. This would allow the state to decide which agency is best suited to provide special services. ''The definitions (in the law) are left the same and the child should receive services, but related responsibilities would be determined by the state. Many other agencies besides the schools used to provide educational service to handicapped children prior to the federal law in 1975, and we want to return this option,'' assistant secretary Tufts says.

She continues, ''There are many instances where children are placed in regular classrooms automatically, and this may not be what is needed by the child. The department's proposals give the school a greater degree of latitude in placing a child.''

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