House Panel Questions Status of Handicapped Policy

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A House subcommittee chairman has asked Secretary of Education William J. Bennett to look into the status of a policy that two offices of the Education Department were asked by lawmakers a year ago to draw up to coordinate their responsibilities for overseeing laws governing the education of handicapped students.

Special-education advocacy organizations, parents, and Congressional aides have charged that the absence of such a policy has resulted in cases being shuffled back and forth between offices in the department, conflicting responses to similar cases, and lengthy delays in investigations.

And a staff aide to Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Republican of Connecticut and chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped, said that the subcommittee has received several letters during the year indicating that "there appears to be no cooperation between the two agencies."

In an Aug. 22 letter to Mr. Bennett, Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, noted that "it is now more than a year" since the House Subcommittee on Select Education requested that a written agreement be issued on how the Education Department's office for civil rights and the office of special education and rehabilitative services would coordinate their work. "Why is it that this important document is still under review?" Mr. Williams asked.

The two offices are responsible for enforcement of the two federal laws that prohibit discrimination against the handicapped; the OCR enforces Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the special-education office enforces P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.

Memorandum of Understanding

In 1980, a Carter Administration "memorandum of understanding" between the offices was drawn up. That 22-page memorandum set up guidelines for collaboration between them, establishing "a framework within which OCR and [the office of special education] will work together to ensure that Section 504 and P.L. 94-142 are administered in the most effective, efficient, and consistent matter possible." (See Education Week, March 27, 1985.)

Never Implemented

However, the memorandum was never actually implemented, largely because of internal reorganization within the OCR, an OCR spokesman said.

Last year, during a select-education-subcommittee hearing, both Harry M. Singleton, assistant secretary for civil rights, and Madeleine Will, assistant secretary for special education, agreed to set up a task force to review the memorandum and initiate a new one as soon as possible. Since then, no memorandum has been issued.

Coordination 'Still There'

Mr. Singleton asserted in a recent interview that the two offices are in fact working together. "In important respects, the coordination that memorandum is supposed to epitomize is still there," he said.

Ms. Will attributed the delay to "normal bureaucratic pace."

"I understand from our staff that it's coming along very nicely," she said. "It's a complex, multi-faceted agreement that we're trying to take a look at."

It will be several months before a final memorandum is issued, according to Ms. Will.

Vol. 05, Issue 02, Page 14

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