Attorneys for handicapped children in the District of Columbia have asserted that the city's latest plan for special education services is inadequate. They have asked a federal judge to appoint an independent court officer to ensure that District officials provide these children with an adequate, free public education.

The city filed the plan last month after District and school officials were held in contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge's 8-year-old order to make special schooling available for handicapped children.

Judge John Garrett Penn issued the contempt finding in June and directed that a report be filed with the court on efforts to comply with the order.

In papers filed in U. S. District court this week, however, the children'slawyers cited the city's long record of failure to abide with that order. They told Penn that only a court-appointed "special master" would have sufficient authority to help city officials get their plans "on the right track."

Those lawyers also contended in court papers that the city plan to overhaul its special education system had not been endorsed by the Board of Education, is "vague and confusing" and contains conflicting proposals.

They have suggested that a special master draft a comprehensive plan to clear up the violations cited by Penn in June and to propose ways to remedy inadequacies and bureaucratic problems within the special education system.

The lawyers also asked that a panel of three experts be appointed to assist the special master, whose own background should include expertise in law, business, government and education or special education.

Special masters are appointed by courts in extraordinary circumstances in which cases become so unwieldy that a judge decides that he needs assistance to make sure that the court's orders are carried out in a particular case.

Court papers noted that a special master was first appointed in the case in 1975 for a one-year term by the late judge Joseph Waddy to help implement his landmark 1973 ruling, which said that handicapped children had a right to an adequate free public education.

But lawyers for the handicapped children said this week that the new special master should have broader authority to develop and to take an active role in its implementation.

School board general counsel James E. Brown acknowledged that the board had not yet acted on the comprehensive plan submitted to Judge Penn in July. h

School board member Frank Smith [Ward One] said the plan is set for consideration by the board in September. He added that he would be surprised if any changes were made, but, he said, "with this board you never know."

The comprehensive plan submitted to the court calls for establishment of a Child Study Center to evaluate students' special education needs; staff reorganization to improve efficiency; implementation of basic special education programs in individual schools, and reorganization of the much-critized Office of Special Education.

In court papers however, the children's lawyers contend that the city has no strategy for getting the money to carry out its plans and fails to address concerns that were raised about possible cutbacks in the existing special education staff.

According to city figures, about 9,000 city children receive special education services, ranging from classroom lessons to residential care.