Watchdog Agency To Investigate Special-Education Office

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Washington--The General Accounting Office will undertake an extensive investigation of alleged management problems in the Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services, gao officials said last week.

"There appear to be systemic management problems," said William Gainer, the Congressional watchdog agency's associate director for education and employment.

"We want to look and see whether they're serious, why they occur, and what could be done about them," he said.

The investigation stems from a narrower study of osers begun--and dropped--by the gao in January. That review, launched at the request of Representative Major Ow4ens, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Select Education, focused on the office's use of task forces.

In the course of the study, however, several department employees spoke off the record to gao investigators, raising broader concerns about the management of osers and its three divisions: the office of special-education programs, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, and the Rehabilitation Services Administration.

"We felt it was worth an additional look," Mr. Gainer said.

Allegations Disputed

Though he indicated that gao investigators have not yet settled on the method of study, Congressional sources said last week that confidential questionnaires sent to high-level osers employees would be used.

Allegations of mismanagement in osers--and in its rehabilitation-services branch, in particular--gained national attention late last year after Justin W. Dart Jr., the former rsa commissioner, delivered stinging criticism of the agency during a hearing before Mr. Owens's subcommittee. (See Education Week, Nov. 25, 1987.)

In unusually frank testimony, Mr. Dart said the agency was beset by ''profound problems" in management, personnel, and resource utilization.

He was forced to resign two weeks later.

At the time, Madeleine C. Will, the assistant secretary who heads osers, said the flap surrounding Mr. Dart's testimony was a "smokescreen" for deeper conflicts between her and state vocational-rehabilitation directors who supported Mr. Dart.

The assistant secretary had clashed with the state directors over her emphasis on serving severely disabled adults, who require more time and money to rehabilitate.

Thelma Leenhouts, a spokesman for Ms. Will, said the gao investigation was part of the same "continuing effort to divert attention from underlying programmatic issues."

"We haven't been made aware by gao of any evidence of mismanagement," she said.

The federal agency's final report on osers is expected to be completed in early fall.--dv

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