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New Study Reaffirms Criticism of Special-Ed. Office

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Washington--A new study of the Education Department's office of special-education and rehabilitative services reaffirms what critics have long contended: That the office has been plagued by serious management problems.

Although the study by the General Accounting Office has yet to be released, its authors discussed their findings last week during a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Select Education.

Representative Major R. Owens, the New York Democrat who chairs the panel, enlisted the Congressional watchdog agency to investigate osers two years ago, following a flurry of criticism over former Assistant Secretary Madeleine C. Will's management of the office. Ms. Will, who held the post for six years, resigned last spring.

The gao researchers surveyed 187 of the office's top managers and senior staff members, interviewed state special-education and vocational-rehabilitation directors, and met with department heads in osers.

"The problems that we found are at least as severe or worse than those we have found in other departments," said William J. Gainer, who directed the study.

Main Findings

Mr. Gainer said his investigators found that:

  • Nearly 80 percent of the office's own top managers rated its overall management practices negatively.
  • The office had no long-term strategy for setting goals or carrying out initiatives defined by Ms. Will.
  • Office operations were seriously hindered because of an excessive number of job vacancies and a lack of employee training, more than 75 percent of the agency employees responding to the survey said.

In February 1988, soon after the study was initiated, 21 of 56 top management positions were vacant. One year later, 14 jobs were either vacant or filled by acting managers.

  • Inadequate monitoring of state programs and other projects funded by the office troubled half the state special-education directors and nearly half the osers employees who were charged with overseeing such programs. Up to four years had passed between site visits to some state programs.
  • Too many decisions were made in the assistant secretary's office--including matters as mundane as approval for travel vouchers.

Davila Promises Changes

Robert R. Davila, who has assumed Ms. Will's post as assistant secretary, said he was already making changes in response to such criticism. (See interview on page 15.)

He said the agency was develop4ing "a set of cross-cutting goals" to guide its operations. In addition, he said he was decentralizing the office's management practices and working to fill staff vacancies.

In the area of staff development, Mr. Davila said he was looking at ways to provide added, in-house training for employees.

He also predicted that a department-wide "accountability initiative'' launched by Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos would lead to closer monitoring of programs funded by his own office.

"The new management team considers returning sound management practices and improved morale to osers to be one of its highest priorities,'' Mr. Davila said.

Copies of the gao report are expected to be released later this month.

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