An elaborate regional system of education for handicapped children, with all costs paid by the state government, has been proposed by a special governor's committee in Virginia.
The plan is designed to end years of controversy and court suits caused by the heavy financial hardships placed on parents of handicapped children and the uneven distribution among cities and counties of the costs of special education for them.
The plan has been proposed by the Governor's Committee on the Education of the Handicapped in time to provide for uniform state financing of special education beginning with the 1978 school year, when a new federal law requiring free education of all handicapped children becomes effective.
The proposal, however, must run a tortuous course, including final approval after an Oct. 19 public hearing by the committee that has proposed it. After that, it will be up to Gov. Mills E. Godwin either to reject the plan or include all or part of it in his 1978 budget and legislative proposals to the General Assembly.
The pressure on the governor and Assembly for some action is intense because Virginia cities and counties now pay more than 60 per cent of special education costs, primarily with funds from the politically sensitive real estate tax. These costs are expected to escalate rapidly in the near future partly because of the new federal law.
The committee proposal would superimpose 22 regional special education districts over the 141 city and county school divisions in the state. The special education program of each regional unit would be governed by a board of control similar to a local school board and by an administrative officer similar to a school superintendent.
The 22 districts would be identical to the state's 22 planning districts, which were establishing to plan, build and operate a variety of public facilities and services on a regional basis. The Northern Virginia district includes Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax City, Manassas and Manassas Park.
Although city and county participation in the regional special education program would be voluntary under the proposal, failure to cooperate could result in denial of state aid for mandatory special education programs.
The committee said that the average cost of educating handicapped children last school year was about $1,700 per child and is rising rapidly. Almost 80,000 handicapped children, about 8 per cent of the state's public school enrollment, were taught in the state schools last year.
The committee report was critical of past state estimates of both special education costs and the costs of complying with minimum education standards for all pupils. It said underestimation of the costs of meeting minimum standards has made it even harder for cities and counties to provide education for the handicapped.
The proposal also tries to solve problems that have arisen from state use of private schools to satisfy special education requirements.
It would allow the state to set minimum program standards and maximum fees in private schools providing special education under contract with the state.
It also would designate a state education official to make a ruling in disputes with parents over the level of state aid for private special education. The official's ruling could be appealed to the court.