Va. Special-Ed. Program Criticized

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Two new studies of special-education programs in Virginia schools give mixed grades to that state's system for educating the handicapped.

While special educators across the state are strongly committed to their students, they conclude, the "type, intensity, and quality of programs'' for the state's 102,000 handicapped students vary greatly among school districts.

The studies--one by an independent consultant and the other by state education officials--were released March 23 by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles.

In some districts, records are poorly kept, serious discipline problems exist, and specialized curricula are not being provided for handicapped children, according to the consultant's study, which is the more hard-hitting of the reports.

Severely handicapped students at one school, that study found, had to use a toilet located behind a screen. Facilities in a small number of other districts lacked air conditioning, it notes.

Both reports blame the state education department for many of the problems. The department, they agree, has shown "a severe lack of leadership'' by failing to set clear special-education policies and inadequately monitoring local programs.

In addition, they conclude, the department lacks the staff and the organization to do the job.

The reports were prepared at the request of Governor Baliles in response to strong criticism of the state's handicapped-education efforts by activist parents.

The more comprehensive study, prepared by an independent consulting firm based in Tallahassee, Fla., was conducted over three months last year and included surveys of 500 school employees, interviews with more than 100 parents and educators, and visits to programs in eight school districts.

The second study, developed largely in response to the independent report, was prepared by the state board of education.

Victory for Parents

The critiques represent a victory for Parents for Compliance, a group of Fairfax County parents of handicapped students whose letters, calls, and protests prompted the reviews.

Marjorie deBlaay, a founder of the group, said the reports were an important first step for Virginia's handicapped students.

"Now, we have to go out and fight to make it happen and, frankly, I'm tired,'' she said.

Parents for Compliance was also instrumental last year in persuading the U.S. Education Department to examine special-education programs in Fairfax County, the state's largest school system. The unprecedented federal study--which was labeled a "whitewash'' by the group--found no significant violations of federal handicapped law in the county's programs.

"If a private consultant can go out and find the state out of compliance, why can't the U.S. Department of Education find it?'' Ms. deBlaay asked.

Although the state reports do not identify violations of federal law, the parents claim that many of the practices described in the reports represent specific instances in which programs were out of compliance with special-education regulations.

They note, for example, that some districts failed to maintain records showing that consideration had been given to placing students in the "least restrictive'' educational environment possible, as required by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142.

For the most part, however, the studies document some poor--but not illegal--conditions and practices.

In describing the level of morale in the state education department, for example, the consultant's report notes that the attitudes of the special-education staff "ranged from quiet determination to do a good job despite the negative atmosphere ... to total resignation and withdrawal from responsibility.''

Despite the problems they enumerate, the studies found that special-education programs across the state were thought to "generally benefit'' the students enrolled in them.

Prompting Changes

Governor Baliles and state education officials said the findings have already prompted major changes.

The Governor said $500,000 has been set aside in the 1988-90 state budget to help the education department strengthen its technical-assistance and monitoring efforts.

In addition, Virginia education officials have reorganized the special-education division and appointed an assistant superintendent to head the effort. State officials have also pledged to develop a monitoring manual to help guide the department in overseeing local programs.

"We knew we had some problems,'' Margaret Roberts, a spokesman for the education department, said last week, "and we're anxious to fix these things.''

Vol. 07, Issue 28

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