Gifted kids may lose out

Bill makes special programs optional

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2000

Gifted and talented children could lose their guarantee to special education under a bill moving through the Legislature.

House Bill 301 was introduced at the request of Gov. Tony Knowles' administration to fix a potentially $14 million problem.

Parents of gifted and talented students, however, say the solution creates a problem for their children.

The most recent version of the bill makes it optional, rather than a requirement, for school districts to provide special programs for gifted and talented students. It also removes an appeal process parents had in the past if they weren't satisfied with the services provided to their gifted children.

Providing no program for students who are academically talented can result in students not reaching their full potential and can lead to behavioral and other problems, parents said.

``They need more,'' said Katie Bausler, a parent of a child in Juneau's extended learning program for gifted and talented children. ``They can do more and they need more, and they're not served academically and sometimes socially by under-challenging them.''

The problem the state Department of Education is trying to fix with the bill is that state special education laws no longer comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The federal government may cut off about $14 million in federal funds to Alaska if the state doesn't come into compliance, said PJ Ford Slack, who oversees special education for the state Department of Education.

Part of the problem is Alaska uses federal special education money to pay for an appeal process for parents who aren't happy with the help a school district provides their child. That appeal process has been used both by parents of children with disabilities and by parents of children who are considered gifted, Ford Slack said.

Using the money to help students other than those with disabilities is not allowed by federal law, so gifted students' appeals should not legally have been funded that way.

``What they want to be clear about is federal funds are not being spent on those children,'' Ford Slack said. ``In our law there was some murkiness about that.''

The state has none of its own money set aside for gifted students' appeals, so the bill changes the law to no longer allow appeals on gifted students' education to be handled at the state level. Rather, those appeals are to be handled at the local level.

That isn't good enough, said Margo Waring, a Juneau parent of a gifted child. ``You know what that amounts to is nothing because you're appealing to the people who made the decision in the first place,'' she said.

An amendment approved by the House Health and Social Services Committee further disturbs parents of gifted children. The amendment, by Rep. John Coghill, a Fairbanks Republican, makes providing a program for gifted and talented students optional for school districts.

Coghill said the issue of gifted and talented education needs to be dealt with separately since it requires state money and is not a federal civil rights issue, as education for children with disabilities is.

``It needs to carry its own fiscal note and needs to be going through its own process,'' he said.

However, Harry Gamble, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said removing the requirement that districts provide programs for gifted and talented children doesn't mean the state Board of Education will let schools off the hook.

The statutory definition of exceptional children in state law still includes gifted students and districts continue to receive money from the state for those students, although it doesn't come to them in a separate category.

The Board of Education has ``broad regulatory authority,'' Gamble said. ``With that broad authority we'll continue to maintain the integrity of gifted and talented.''

Groups that advocate for students with disabilities, such as Parents Inc. and the Disability Law Center of Alaska, generally support the bill.

Among the changes in federal law it adopts are provisions for a mediation process, requirements for additional data collection and an increase in the number of people who must be part of the team writing an individualized education plan for a child with a disability.

``I'm hoping it provides for a more serious and severe oversight,'' said Joan Dangeli, a Juneau woman who has been dissatisfied with the special education services her son received.

The bill's next stop is the House Finance Committee. A hearing has not been scheduled there yet. A similar bill, Senate Bill 205, has a hearing in Senate Health Education and Social Services Committee at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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