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9% of Spec.-Ed. Children Lack Services, Audit Finds

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Washington--School districts failed to properly evaluate or develop individualized education programs for one out of 11 children in federally funded special-education programs nationwide, an internal Education Department investigation has revealed.

Urging "stronger enforcement of program requirements," the Inspector General's recent audit of the files of 2,000 children found that 9 percent of eligible children counted in December 1986 either had not been evaluated or re-evaluated, or did not have a current individualized education program.

"[W]ithout current evaluations and IEP's, there was not sufficient assurance [the children] were receiving the special-education and related services appropriate for their unique needs," the auditors wrote.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which governs special-education programs, an IEP must be completed for each handicapped child before services can be provided.

The 21-state audit, conducted between 1988 and 1989, also found that 3 percent of the children whose files were inspected either were not enrolled in the education agency that reported them or had not been found to be eligible for the program--and, therefore, should not have been counted.

Federal grants to state providers are based, in part, on the number of handicapped children ages 3 to 21 who are receiving services in that state.

According to the Inspector General's report, if that 3 percent figure were extrapolated to the universe of children served, it would mean that 119,500 children were counted nationwide in 1986 who should not have been.

With a 1988 allocation of $316 per child--which was based on December 1986 counts--those children generated about $37.7 million in federal special-education funding, the audit said.

"Correcting this problem should result in more accurate allocations" of that amount of money each year, the report concluded.

About $1.3 billion in federal special-education funds were distributed to states in the 1988 fiscal year on the basis of the Dec. 1, 1986, count, which reported nearly 4.2 million handicapped children nationwide.

In its recommendations, the audit said it was "crucial" for the Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services to be more stringent in its enforcement of program requirements.

Because some of the problems seemed "persistent," the auditors wrote, the special-education office should notify state education agencies that the Education Department will withhold or prorate funding "if failure to substantially comply with program requirements is found."

The report noted that "some" state monitors were identifying the same problems highlighted by the auditors and that two-thirds of the 21 states were verifying their child counts. But it urged the other states to begin monitoring their counts.

In addition, the Inspector General recommended that Robert Davila, the assistant secretary of the special-education office:

  • Advise state education agencies that the monitoring of local agencies include checking the accuracy of the handicapped child count and expanding the review when errors are found.
  • Broaden the federal office's enforcement to include follow-ups when there is evidence of inadequate evaluations, I.E.P.'s, or documentation.
  • Advise the state education agencies of the changes in program-enforcement procedures and require them to update their own procedures to reflect the revisions.

In a memo responding to a draft version of the audit, Mr. Davila said his office would follow the report's recommendations and undertake "corrective actions" both to strengthen program compliance at the federal, state, and local levels, and to improve recordkeeping that enables a district to show compliance.

One such action, Mr. Davila wrote, will be to require states to make a part of their state plan a description of their methods for verifying the number of handicapped children served.

In addition, he noted, the office of special-education programs "has made significant improvements in its monitoring system during the past two years."

This year, he added, the office of special-education programs is trying to improve "the timeliness and effectiveness of the corrective-action process."

"We believe this change will result in more timely statewide changes, and ensure more effective compliance," Mr. Davila added.

William Schipper, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said he had no problem with the recommendations that monitoring of program compliance and child counts be conducted carefully at both the state and federal levels.

But he said he was angered by the report's tone, especially in the section referring to an apparent misallocation of $37.7 million.

"The way that statement is made," Mr. Schipper said, "it appears there is a rip-off, a fraud."

In fact, he said, that money would still be channeled to special-education programs, only it would be distributed differently.

"It's not like they're counting children that don't exist," he said of state agencies.

"The flaw is in the right direction," Mr. Schipper added. "We're serving kids, and we're messing up on the paperwork."

He also called the audit's recommendation that the Education Department withhold or prorate payments for failure to comply "like killing a mosquito with a freight train."

"There could be an overreaction [by federal officials] on this that would be overkill," he said.

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