Don't let down these children

A House subcommittee was surely on target this week in unanimously adopting a resolution disapproving an entire package of proposed new school regulations regarding handicapped children. As pointed out by Bronx Congressman Mario Biaggi , the resolution sends a ''clear message to the White House.'' The message, of course, is not just one of disapproval of the administration plan but also a not-so-subtle reminder to the US Department of Education that it not pull an end run while Congress is in recess - and attempt to sneak elements of the plan into effect.

The proposed package would have sharply altered existing federal rules for four million US pupils and their parents who are participating in school programs for children designated as being handicapped or having learning disabilities. Under the landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 the youngsters must be ''main-streamed'' into the regular classroom setting and given an ''appropriate'' public education. The administration, arguing that current rules are complicated and costly for local school districts would, among other steps, have taken away the consent of parents regarding placement of children deemed handicapped; would have gutted the notification process for psychological or medically related evaluations; would have allowed removal of a student from the classroom if teachers or administrators felt the presence of the child was ''disruptive.''

In short, a package that would have taken away important legal protections not only for handicapped children but all parents of school-age children who might at some point be told that their children had learning disabilities. Following public protests, the administration this week said that it would refrain from weakening some of the regula-tions. Education Secretary Bell says that it will now be months before the proposals are put in final form.

Such a pulling back by the administration is in order. Surely, the needs of local school districts must not be overlooked. Providing special help for youngsters does entail added costs. But then again, what is the alternative? Once again segregating these children, as was done for most of the nation's history? That course alone can only mean enormous long-run welfare costs to society, plus the terrible personal blight that would result. The better approach, as is implicit in the 1975 legislation, is to ensure that the children receive a regular, appropriate education that will allow them to realize their potential and become constructive, self-supporting members of society. And there should be no tampering with present regulations requiring notification and parental consent.

Given the fact that a memo has come to light in which a Department of Education official talks about ''dividing the enemy'' and pulling a ''trick'' on Congress by asking it to consider various rule changes over time, lawmakers should examine with great care the final set of proposals when they are submitted next year.

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