Canton Repository

March 14, 2003

Flexibility sought for special-ed funds

By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent

Copley News Service / Michael Temchine

WASHINGTON — Early intervention for students who have reading and other learning difficulties could help resolve problems early and reduce the number of students in special-education classes, Canton City School Superintendent Dianne Talarico told a congressional panel Thursday.

“When we have the flexibility to respond with added personnel, intensified instruction or other interventions, we can reduce the number of students we refer to special education,” she said.

“This is particularly true of students with learning disabilities and emotional disturbances who are too quickly rejected by general educators.”

With half a dozen lawmakers listening, she urged Congress to give local school districts the flexibility to use some of the federal aid earmarked for special education for intervention.

Among a handful of educators invited to testify before a panel of the House Education and Workforce Committee on Thursday, Talarico had a rare opportunity to influence federal special-education law.

Congress is looking for ways to improve the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as it prepares to reauthorize the 1975 law.

Talarico said school districts should be allowed to use a portion of the funding they receive for special education “to serve students before they are formally referred to special education.”

Canton City School District already has begun a pre-referral intervention program for students “who are having learning and behavior problems in order to meet their needs and reduce the number of students we serve in special education,” she said.

“The support of federal funds would make an important difference to us in further developing this initiative.”

The committee invited Talarico to testify on the recommendation of Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township. Regula, a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, suggested Talarico as a witness after meeting with her in Washington last month.

In brief remarks to the panel, Regula praised Talarico for returning to her native Canton “because she wanted to make the school system a better servant of the people.” She has emphasized literacy, he said. Talarico previously served as associate superintendent in the San Francisco school system.

Other witnesses who spoke to the committee recommended new methods for diagnosing children with learning disabilities, and urged lawmakers to repeal time-consuming record-keeping requirements.

“Unlike many other disabilities, learning disabilities are difficult to diagnose,” said Douglas Carnine, a professor at the University of Oregon.

Defining learning disabilities as neurological disorders that affect how the brain processes information, he said they do not show up on X-rays, CT scans or other medical tests.

The current approach used to identify learning-disabled children relies on finding a discrepancy between an intelligence test score in the normal range and an achievement level that is two or more years below grade level, he said.

Because that approach does not identify learning-disabled children until the third grade, Carnine said criteria should be developed to identify students who likely are to fail as soon as possible.

Harriet P. Brown, an administrator from the Orange County Public Schools in Florida, said Congress should require states to develop a uniform “model form” to make it easier to develop mandated individual education plans for students with disabilities.

In addition to pushing for more early intervention, Talarico urged Congress to provide more support for professional development for teachers.

“General educators are not knowledgeable about the diversity of student learning styles, effective intervention strategies, adapting and modifying the core curriculum and cultural diversity,” she said.

She said the reauthorized special-education law should provide more support for school districts and universities to train general-education teachers and administrators “with new skill sets to address the needs of diverse learners.”

Rep. Michael Castle, R-Delaware, said the committee plans to reduce the burden of paperwork and bureaucracy for teachers and promote early intervention in its reauthorization bill.

“All these witnesses, they’re very good witnesses, they all pointed out that we need to have early intervention,” said Castle, who chairs the subcommittee that held the hearing.