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Will-Dart Dispute Surfaces in Congressional Hearing

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Washington--A long-brewing squabble in the federal government's top special-education office became the focus of a Congressional oversight hearing held here last Thursday.

The debate pits Madeleine C. Will, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, against Justin W. Dart Jr., the commissioner of the rehabilitation-services administration--an office that falls under Ms. Will's division.

At issue is the extent of the supervisory authority that the assistant secretary has over the office of Mr. Dart, who was appointed by the President.

In recent weeks, supporters of Mr. Dart have complained in letters to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett that Ms. Will has illegally "undermined" the commissioner's authority to discharge his duties. (See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1987.)

And state directors of vocational rehabilitation, citing that problem and other longstanding frustrations with federal education officials, have refused to work with the assistant secretary.

The dispute has also split the special-education community, with at least 24 organizations writing letters in recent weeks to either criticize or support Ms. Will.

At last Thursday's hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped, both federal officials were alternately admonished for8their parts in the controversy and praised for their long-time advocacy in support of the handicapped.

"If those internal problems are not resolved in short order," said Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a Connecticut Republican and a member of the committee, "it is not you or I who will suffer, but the millions of disabled Americans who look to your department for unified leadership on these issues."

To settle the dispute and enhance coordination among the agencies that function under her jurisdictional umbrella, Ms. Will told legislators that she planned to establish a working group to study the matter. She said she hoped to have the group's final recommendations for changes "by the beginning of the year."

The Assistant Secretary was also criticized by a representative of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, the group whose members have refused to work with her.

Paul Dziedzic, president of group, reiterated his organization's concerns about delays in funding for and implementation of new federal rehabilitation-services laws.

He also pointed out that the rehabilitation-services administration, which had a staff of 137 and a budget of $858 million in 1981, last November had only 80 employees. The department currently has a $1.2-billion budget.

"I am frustrated by the attitude of this Administration that somehow they can administer a program without professional people--especially for disabled persons," said Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee. "It takes personnel specially trained to carry out the law."

One-Year Anniversary

Though that dispute occupied much of the discussion at the meeting, the purpose of the hearing was to gauge the progress of three new federal laws that serve the handicapped: the Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act of 1986, or P.L. 99-457, which established programs for handicapped infants and toddlers; the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986, P.L. 99-506, which created a program of federal grants for supported-employment services for the handicapped; and the Handicapped Children's Protection Act, P.L. 99-372, which requires schools to pay attorney's fees for parents who successfully challenge them in special-education disputes.

The hearing was scheduled to coincide with the first anniversary of the date that all three bills were signed into law.

Advocates for the handicapped4and the professionals who serve them offered generally poor reviews of the Education Department's progress in helping to carry out the new laws.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education, the association that represents many of the officials who must implement P.L. 99-457, complained about the department's failure to issue regulations for administering the new law. John Clark, a Nebraska special educator and president of nasdse, said some states had not received the federal funds necessary to operate the new programs as of two weeks ago.

"As a result, efficient start-up of new programs and services in many states and local jurisdictions has been seriously jeopardized," he said. "It has not gone unnoticed by the states that these delays and inefficiencies ... coincide with the Administration's statement of opposition to both the concept and the funding of these programs."

His comments represented the organization's harshest public criticism to date on that subject.

A 'Commendable' Job

In response to such criticism, Ms. Will blamed the "crush of business" for the delays and reduced staffing levels. She told the subcommittee that her department had produced 40 regulatory documents last year--accounting for one-third of the regulatory documents issued by the Education Department during that period.

The 1,900 grants awarded by her office last year represented 25 percent of all grants funded by the department during that time, she said.

She also said she had hired 49 employees in the office of special education and rehabilitative services since last January. Nineteen more new employees have been hired, but have not yet begun work, Ms. Will added.

"When considered in light of the department's overall workload last year, osers performance has been commendable," she said.

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