Poor plan for handicapped pupils

The Reagan administration has run into a barrage of criticism over its plans to alter current federal regulations defining the rights of parents and children in regard to special education programs for the handicapped. Lawmakers, for their part, have become so concerned over the issue that both houses of Congress have gone on record in asserting the right to impose a congressional veto of any regulatory changes before they take effect. Teachers groups, meanwhile, are urging that the administration proposals -- which would considerably weaken the due process rights of parents and children in relation to school departments -- be scuttled entirely, or sharply changed.

The current debate is long overdue, and touches not just the 4 million school-age children and their parents now participating in such programs nationwide, but virtually everyone involved with the nation's educational systems. The administration, particularly the US Department of Education, deserves credit for taking what is perhaps the first hard look at special education laws since the enactment of the Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1974. That act, enacted under a Republican president, has already led to sweeping changes in the way school systems operate within the US, particularly in the requirement that handicapped children be ''mainstreamed'' into the regular classroom setting whenever possible. But the very process required under the act -- namely, that such children be ''identified,'' given an individualized education plan, and also mainstreamed -- has led to significant expenses and paperwork for school departments. The administration is correct in seeking to reduce unnecessary costs.

At the same time, Congress ought to ensure that due process requirements now required regarding testing and placement of handicapped children not be gutted, as the administration is requesting.

Under the administration plan, school authorities would no longer be required to obtain parental consent before commencing an evaluation of a child considered to have some type of learning disability. Nor would consent be necessary regarding placement of the child. The school would be required to notify the parent that special testing was underway -- involving psychological or medically related evaluations, for example -- but such notification would not have to be recorded by school authorities.

Certainly, parents should have the right to give consent before such action is taken. What is needed is a balanced policy taking account of the interests of both school authorities and handicapped children and their parents. Given their limited financial resources, schools cannot provide all the special services to handicapped children that they might need. On the other hand, the present system has worked well in the sense that millions of children with learning difficulties are now full participants in a regular school experience.

Thus, any changes in the current regulations should come only after the most careful consideration.

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