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Special-Ed. Unit's Problems 'Profound,' Dart Tells Panel

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Washington--Departing from political protocol, Justin W. Dart Jr., federal commissioner of rehabilitative services, delivered stinging criticism of the agency he serves during a Congressional hearing last week.

The Education Department's rehabilitation-services administration "is afflicted--particularly in its central office--by profound problems in areas such as management, personnel, and resource utilization," Mr. Dart told members of the House Subcommittee on Select Education.

"We are ravaged by disunity and hostility internally and in our vital relationships with our state-agency and grantee partners and certain other segments of the disability community," he charged.

The hearing room, packed with lobbyists and advocates for the disabled, fell silent as Mr. Dart gave his unusually frank testimony.

The rsa, which helps prepare handicapped adults for employment and self-sufficiency, is one of three divisions under the office of special education and rehabilitative services.

Osers and its chief, Assistant Secretary of Education Madeleine C. Will, have been embroiled in a bitter dispute with state directors of vocational rehabilitation.

The state officials, claiming that Ms. Will had "paralyzed" Mr. Dart's operations by delaying the implementation of programs, reducing staff, and imposing restrictions on travel, earlier this year said they would no longer work with her. (See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1987.)

The state directors, who were later joined in their criticism by other organizations in the rehabilitation community, charged that Ms. Will had "usurped" Mr. Dart's authority to operate the rehabilitation administration.

They also complained about what they called "a hostile attitude" toward rehabilitative services in the department.

Breaking the Silence

Seated beside Ms. Will at the hearing last week, Mr. Dart for the first time gave testimony supporting many of the state directors' complaints.

He painted a portrait of a rehabilitative-services administration that is "undermanned" and lacking in morale. He said Ms. Will had blocked his attempts to hire for top jobs in his office people with experience in administering state vocational-rehabilitation programs.

Under her management, he added, he had even been forced to seek the assistant secretary's permission to mail a Federal Express package.

Until the hearing, the commissioner, a widely respected advocate for the disabled, had maintained public silence over his intra-agency problems--even after high-level department officials met with him in September and unsuccessfully sought his resignation.

Mr. Dart said he was making his "statement of conscience" last week because he had "exhausted all methods that I know of of coming to a consensus."

The panel also heard from state vocational-rehabilitation directors from Kansas, Montana, and Vermont, who complained that regulations and funds for the agency's new $24.2-million "supported employment" program were not issued for more than a year after the bill creating the program was signed into law.

The program, which provides assistance to the severely handicapped in the form of on-the-job coaches or trainers, was passed by the Congress last year as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

'Proud of Record'

"I'm proud of our record," countered Ms. Will in response to the criticism.

She said her office had been working since January to fill many of the vacancies in the rehabilitation administration and had added or named 33 new people to its staff this year. The size of the rsa's staff had declined from 285 in 1968 to 193 last year. Other positions have been downgraded to lower salary levels.

The assistant secretary also denied having overturned Mr. Dart's personnel requests.

"I do review high-level management decisions," Ms. Will said. "I do believe that's my prerogative."

Part of the dispute centers on the extent of her authority in overseeing the rsa, because both Ms. Will and Mr. Dart are Presidential appointees.

In addition, Ms. Will and advocates for the disabled have differed over the adequacy of the attention paid by state rehabilitation agencies to the severely disabled, among other handicapped clients. Ms. Will claims that the current system contains "disincentives" that discourage counselors from working with the severely handicapped, who require more time and effort to rehabilitate.

The state directors contend that, in her zest to serve that population, Ms. Will may be ignoring the needs of other disabled adults in need of rehabilitation. In addition, they note, federal funds allow them to serve only a small fraction of the disabled people who need services.

After a long freeze in their relations, Ms. Will met for the first time with the state directors on Nov. 17.

Chairman's Criticism

The bottom line, according to Mr. Dart and Representative Major Owens, the chairman of the subcommittee, is that the dispute has jeopardized the efficient provision of services to the disabled.

"Whether through incompetence or sabotage, rsa is not delivering the leadership and guidance necessary to the field," concluded Mr. Owens, a Democrat from New York.

"What is even more troubling," he continued, "is the fact there seems to be no discernible recognition on the part of the assistant secretary's office that serious management problems exist."

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