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Special-Education Monitoring Sharply Attacked in Hearing

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WASHINGTON--The Education Department has failed to correct the longstanding problems that keep it from ensuring that states comply with handicapped-education law, advocates and two former department officials charged last week.

In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Select Education, the witnesses characterized the federal system for monitoring special education as plagued by inadequate staffing and extensive delays.

"Ten years to develop a working monitoring system is totally unacceptable,'' said Marjorie deBlaay, cofounder of a Virginia-based parents' group that advocates full enforcement of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142.

"If your child was in kindergarten when the law was passed'' in 1975, she told the panel, "that child is halfway through high school now.''

Such criticism comes four years after shortcomings in the monitoring system first became the subject of Congressional hearings. Despite the department's efforts to overhaul the system since that time, witnesses said, fundamental problems remain in the operation of the $1.6-billion special-education program.

Limited Staff, High Turnover

Some of the severest criticism came from David J. Rostetter, who once headed the Education Department branch directly in charge of monitoring state programs.

Now a private consultant, Mr. Rostetter said his former branch is currently staffed by 14 workers who are doing a job designed for 40.

In addition, he said, high turnover among management officials has further impeded progress. Since 1983, he said, six directors and five deputy directors have served in the office of special-education programs, which supervises Mr. Rostetter's former division.

He said his own position was left vacant for 18 months following his departure in 1986.

Mr. Rostetter also criticized the department for the length of time needed to complete the monitoring process.

"Not one draft monitoring report in the last three years has been done in less than eight months,'' he charged.

And during that time, he said, no state "corrective action plan''--the final step in the process--has been fully approved by the department.

"In short, we haven't told anybody to correct anything,'' Mr. Rostetter said.

He also told the panel that political considerations may play a role in monitoring efforts. As an example, he recounted a conversation with a former supervisor--no longer employed by the department--who allegedly told him not to make any findings in an oversight visit to California. He said he ignored the directive.

"What's happening is that parents are being put in the role of being enforcers,'' he concluded. "It's not their job; it's the job of public agencies.''

Left to Districts

As a result of the department's management failings, another former official told the panel, significant compliance problems exist in a number of school districts around the country.

"I wouldn't be as concerned as I am if I felt that monitoring was being left to the states,'' said Martin Gerry, who as head of the office for civil rights in the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare helped draw up regulations to implement P.L. 94-142.

"In most cases,'' he said, "it's being left to the local school system, and the federal government needs to show leadership--to beef up the authority of the states.''

Mr. Gerry, now a consultant, currently heads a task force on monitoring that was appointed by the office of special-education programs last year.

Speaking in defense of federal monitoring efforts, Madeleine C. Will, the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said great strides had been made in improving the process.

Though some reports still take as long as eight months to complete, she said, the time between a monitoring team's initial visit to a state and the issuance of a final report has been cut by a third.

Over the past three years, the department has monitored 24 states and made findings in 15 areas of special-education law, Ms. Will said.

In addition, she said, states often take the initiative to correct problems before the department issues a final report.

"Despite the positive results of our monitoring in many areas,'' Ms. Will added, "I am not totally satisfied with the efficiency of the ... effort.'

"There are 15,000 school districts,'' she said. "We could never ensure compliance in 15,000 school districts and the law doesn't give us the authority to do that.''

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