Critics Find Fault With Administration's Handicapped-Aid Efforts
Washington--Special-education advocates and administrators were heartened in 1983 when President Reagan picked Madeleine C. Will as the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.
In their view, after two years of failed efforts to deregulate, defund, and effectively dismantle federal special-education programs, the Administration had made a conciliatory gesture with the appointment of Ms. Will, who had worked on issues involving the handicapped and was the mother of a handicapped son.
But some of those who monitor, work with, or have worked in her office say they remain dismayed at the Administration's efforts in the area of education of the handicapped. They are especially disappointed because, they say, the initial promise of Ms. Will's tenure has gone unfulfilled.
"There seems to be a lack of concern for the well-being of the total [special-education] system" in Ms. Will's office, said Frederick J. Weintraub, head of governmental relations for the Council for Exceptional Children.
In an interview last week, Ms. Will 'dismissed such criticisms, saying they stemmed from a "false perception." She said that she was pleased with the work of her staff and with the progress being made on major issues.
Bureaucracy Under Fire
The office of special education and rehabilitative services, which Ms.4Will manages, has three main branches--the office of special-education programs, the rehabilitation services administration, and the National Institute of Handicapped Research. It has a budget of more than $2.5 billion and a staff of more than 500.
"Our nation is committed to serving handicapped children and adults," Ms. Will said in Congressional testimony last year. "I think that the Education Department and the Administration totally support that commitment."
But "the reality and the rhetoric are very different," said George J. Hagerty, who worked in osers from 1978 until this year and who is now an administrator and professor at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass.
He criticized the Administration's inaction on a number of issues--among them the link between regular and special education and the expanding learning-disabled population--and lamented the low morale of osers employees and poor communication between federal and state and local officials.
As an example, he pointed to deep budget reductions in programs designed to help teachers deal with learning-disabled pupils.
Moreover, the office of special-education programs is losing "good, experienced people," said Wendy Cullar, until recently director of that office. "There's an increase in the programs the office has to administer, and a decrease in staff."
Many of these problems, both critics and supporters of Ms. Will said, are caused by institutional and historical factors beyond her control.
"Madeleine Will must implement programs designed in a period of growth in regulations, at a time when the federal government had a significant role," Mr. Hagerty observed. "She is now operating in an Administration with a view that we've been overprescriptive in the past."
"She's handicapped by the political and philosophical biases of this Administration," he said.
William Schipper, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said delays in issuing regulations and proposed special-education budget cuts were attributable to policies of the White House Office of Management and Budget, whose dictates agencies like osers must typically live with.
Moreover, such problems as low staff morale and losses of experienced staff members are endemic to bureaucracies rather than unique to the current Administration, said Martin Gerry, a former head of osers who now practices law in Washington. Discontent in the ranks, he said, "may be more institutionalized than real."
Mr. Gerry added that the reportedly poor relationship between Ms. Will and state officials is perhaps tied more to personality than policy.
"Madeleine has not had a chance to sit down and talk to many state directors," he said. "She has not 'worked' the group. Everyone knew Ed Martin [the former osers head]. It's not true with Madeleine."
But he contended that "she's now making more of an effort to do that. In a very real sense, she's never going to be a 'good ol' boy,' but I think they're coming to understand and respect her."
But other experts said they could not recall communication and the relationship between federal officials and state and local officials who must implement federal law ever being worse.
Mr. Hagerty, who was in charge of the state-monitoring office from 1983 until this past summer, said that "state and local governments feel tremendously up in the air about a number of fundamental issues where they receive no guidance from the federal government."
He said that during a 12-to-18-month period during his tenure, the state-monitoring office never had more than 12 staff members and, for a time, had no secretarial or support staff.
"It's very difficult to keep up an active process of communication between the states and the federal government if you don't have the personnel or the resources," said Mr. Hagerty.
Ms. Will told a House appropriations panel last year that her agency had "sufficient staff" to conduct program reviews.
But high turnover, numerous temporary appointments, and vacancies in senior policymaking positions also hamper effective coordination and leadership, critics say, linking these trends to Ms. Will'smanagement technique and her "suspicion" of the bureaucracy.
The Administration's response is to "centralize control, to knock out the variables," said a career staff member in osers. "They end up with delay, and constituents don't get responses."
The osers staff member said many skilled professionals were leaving because of the increasing numbers of political appointees in positions that require extensive expertise.
"I don't think we have an extremely large number of political appointees, and I think the political appointees we bring on have a good rounding in special education and rehabilitative matters," commented Ms. Will in an interview.
The probable result of the internal upheavals and retrenchment at osers is a shrinking federal role in special education, experts say.
But according to Mr. Gerry, "The law assumes program expertise will be at the local level and it's increasingly come to pass. I don't think we should expect federal government to be the center of expertise."
Mr. Hagerty, however, said that the national scope of special-education issues requires an assertive federal role in promoting those issues. And now, he said, "the federal government and osers are becoming increasingly irrelevant."
Said Mr. Weintraub: "I think the field will look elsewhere for leadership. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it's healthy."
Staff writer Alina Tugend contributed to this report.