A partisan move by legislators to tie state special education programs to the revival of bilingual education could jeopardize school programs for about 28,000 handicapped children in Orange County and about 400,000 statewide, local education officials said Wednesday.
Concern that special education programs might be allowed to lapse mounted Wednesday when the Senate Education Committee tacked the ticklish bilingual education provision onto a previously noncontroversial measure that included programs for the handicapped. The amendment, supported by the committee’s Democratic majority, is expected to draw fire from Republicans who oppose bilingual education, legislative sources said.
If the Legislature does not pass a new bill to authorize handicapped education programs before it adjourns on Sept. 1, money already allocated for special education — $1.1 billion statewide — could be frozen in state coffers. Local districts unable to pick up the tab for existing programs could be forced to slash or eliminate special education, concerned educators said Wednesday.
The amendment makes special education a “political hostage” said Rhys Burchill, executive director of Developmental Disabilities Area Board 11, which comprises Orange County. “Apparently special education is being used to get the other programs through the Legislature,” Burchill said.
Reactions in the special education community range from “predictions of chaos to predictions that special education programs can continue” because cash for handicapped education is already in the budget, said Carol Arnesen, director of the Orange County Department of Education’s special education unit.
At risk are state-funded programs for handicapped children, including special education programs at all 28 school districts in Orange County. The programs include classes for students whose disabilities range from minor hearing loss to severe brain damage.
The state law defining and authorizing special education programs expired on June 30, and legislators since then have worked to pass a new law to continue such programs. The effort — supported by Democrats and Republicans — has now become entangled in the Democrat’s effort to renew several other expired school aid programs, including the bilingual education.
The Democratic majority last year overcame virtually solid Republican opposition to pass a bill that would have extended the life of bilingual programs. But that bill, authored by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican.
Democrats in the Legislature this year have sought to pass another bilingual education bill by linking it to less controversial programs for handicapped and giftedstudents. That bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes, (D-Los Angeles), also included state aid to disadvantaged urban students, aid to American Indian students and other special aid programs opposed by Republicans.
As an alternative to Hughes’ bill, the Assembly passed a bill by Assemblyman Jack O’Connell (D-Santa Barbara) that would havecontinued the life of only two programs, special education and Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). On Wednesday, the O’Connell measure, AB 3077, was amended by Senate Democrats to include bilingual education. The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee. If it passes there, it will go to the full Senate for a vote, and then return in amended form to the Assembly.
Westminster resident Diane Williams, a leader in special education statewide, said Wednesday that if the a new battle over bilingual education is allowed to endanger special education, thousands of children will suffer.
“The special education bill has been caught in a partisan political battle in Sacramento, and if they don’t correct the situation, the (handicapped) children will be seriously affected,” said Williams, who is chairman of the Special Education Community Advisory Committee Network of California.
Rick Simpson, a member of the Assembly Education Committee staff, said the sponsor of the amended bill may choose to drop the measure rather than allow a bilingual battle with Republicans. O’Connell, the sponsor, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
“Yes, it has now become a controversial bill,” Simpson said.
Supporters of special education programs in Orange County said the vote on special education programs should remain separate from the bilingual education controversy. Binding the programs together may could doom chances of getting a bill passed and signed by the governor, they said.
Special education officials also expressed concern that federal aid to handicapped students might be stopped if California does not pass a law authorizing special education.