Patricia Alsobrook will never forget Jeff, an emotionally disturbed youngster who was transferred to her special education class seven years ago after he tackled a young kindergarten teacher and put a knife to her throat.
"The teachers would not walk down the hall when they saw him . . .," said Alsobrook, a Fairfax County resident who was teaching in California at the time. "His parents had given up on him and everyone was scared of him."
Slowly, Alsobrook began working with Jeff, giving him the kind of attention she says was possible only in the small, 12-student special education class she taught.
Several weeks ago, Alsobrook received a letter from Jeff, who is now 19. Last fall, he wrote, he won a scholarship and entered Yale, where he is planning to major in history.
"Without the special ed program, he's be on the street now, and I'm not just saying that because I helped him," Alsobrook says. "Because of that program, he was not isolated in a regular classroom . . . It's like a miracle to me."
Today, there are nearly 4 million special education students nationwide. In Virgina, they number almost 100,000, including nearly 31,000 students in the Northern Virginia school districts of Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties. Some, like Jeff, are emotionally disturbed, others are blind or deaf, still others are mentally retarded.
Since 1975, all those children have been protected by the federal Education for All Handicapped Act, also known as Public Law 94-142, which outlines specific steps for identifying handicapped children and providing them with the most "appropriate" and "least restrictive" educational environment.
But under a Reagan proposal expected to go to Congress this week, that law would be wiped off the books.
Administration officials say the act would be replaced with a "safety net," a section of the 1973 Vocational Rehabilitation Act which states that a person cannot be discriminated against because of a handicap.
Critics of the plan, however, question the protection Reagan's "safety net" could provide and insist that the administration proposals would eliminate most of the gains for the handicapped that have been carefully forged over the last decade.
"In terms of kids," said Fred Weintraub, and official with the Council for Exceptional Children. "I think its disastrous. We need to have, from a (civil rights) standpoint, a minimum set of protections for children who up to a few years ago were denied entrance to schools."
Officials at the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) still are negotiating the details of the proposal, according to knowledgeable sources. But draft proposals circulating on the Hill and among private groups representing the interests of the handicapped indicate that a major result of the final proposal still would be to repeal the handicapped education act.
A copy of a letter dated March 20 from Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell to OMB Director David Stockman, which accompanied one of several draft bills on the issue, underscores the policy decisions already made by the administration.
For instance, according to Bell's letter, repeal of the handicapped education act would be accomplished by consolidating 44 federal grants for handicapped and other educational programs into two block grants, one to the states and the other to local governments. At the same time, the funds would be cut by 25 percent.
Although the Education Department and OMB, according to several sources, still are debating exactly how those reduced funds will be distributed, both departments appear to agree that states would generally receive a much smaller percentage of the money, with the bulk of funds going to local school districts. That means it would be up to local school districts to decide how a large percentage of the money will be spent. Critics say that would pit several groups against eacah other in a fight over limited funds.
The handicapped, for instance, would be competing for money with such programs as Title I, an educational program for disadvantaged children that currently receives about three times the funding that special education programs do.
"Who's going to get shortchanged in this?" asks Paul Marchand, an official with the National Association for Retarded Citizens. "Somebody's got to. Do you pit the need for more librarians against handicapped kids? Do the more mildly retarded lose out to the severely retarded?
Weintraub says the proposal would leave the fate of such programs to "the crapshoot of local political decision-making . . . It's going to be a blook bath."
However, Herman Goldberg, the U.S. Education Department's acting assistant secretary for sepcial education and rehabilitation services, believes such reactions are too harsh. Noting that a major administration goal is to free states and localities from the burden of excessive federal regulations, Goldberg says, "A great many states have very strong special education sections in the codes, and more and more states are offering programs for handicapped children which approach the best programs in the country."
Counters Marchand: "We have no trust in school systems or in state educational agencies. If we had any, we wouldn't have fought for the (federal) law . . . And the scariest thing is we already have firm evidence that many states plan to repeal their own laws."
Virginia, like most other states, has statutes similar to federal laws that guarantee special education programs for the handicapped. But, according to sources in Congress and several special education groups, at least seven states, apparently influenced by signals from the Reagan administration, have or are planning to repeal their laws governing education for the handicapped, and the groups fear other states could very well follow suit. Although Virginia is not among those, some observers say that given the conservative political climate of the state, they would not be surprised to find state legislators suddenly reviewing the need for such laws.
Still, Goldberg said, the administration proposals answer an complaint that many states have voiced through the years: That decisions about local programs should be made at the local level, not in Washington by bureaucrats unfamiliar with specific needs of the citizens in the various localities,
"I have a feeling that parents of handicapped children will act no less forcefully than parents acting in earlier years when programs developed without federal aid . . .," Goldberg said. "As the scene shifts from Washington to states and school board rooms, they will be as demanding."
But advocacy groups for the handicapped say that such arguments only bolster their contention that the federal laws should be left alone. For example, they say, the standards set out in the handicapped education act were developed after years and years of discussions and debate. The Reagan proposals, they insist, would only re-open that debate, ultimately forcing the courts to settle the issue.
". . . it will throw everything back to the courts," Weintraub contends. "If you don't have standards, then you have every judge in the country setting his own standards and I don't think anyone wants that."
The one bright spot for supporters of special education programs is the apparent resistance developing in Congress to any proposal that would dilute the power of the handicapped education act.
For one thing, say staff members on committees that will be considering the issue in both chambers, the act was Congress' own proposal, and members are not likely to rush to repeal their own legislation. In addition, they say, the feeling among committee members is that they will resist any proposal, such as repeal of Public Law 94-142, that would seriously harm programs for the handicapped. At best, staff members add, the issue is not likely to be resolved for at least a year.
Even if Congress successfully resists the efforts to repeal the act, education officials say they face another broadside from the administration: the proposal to rescind 25 percent of the funds already allocated for the school year beginning next fall. That would be on top of an across-the-board, 25 percent cut in all federal education spending for the following school year. 2
Currently, the State of Virginia is scheduled to receive $24 million in special education funds. Arlington has been allocated $275,280 for the school year beginning nexxt fall; Alexandria, $209,000; Fairfax County, $3.3 million; Prince William County, $594.775, and Loudoun County, $245,600. Because U.S. education and OMB officials are still hammering out exactly how those funds will be distributed, no one is sure what the total losses will be in each school district. Regardless, special education groups say, if the cuts are approved on time, local school districts will have little time to scramble for alternate sources of funding -- if any are to be found.
"Schools are already counting on that money and there's nowhere else to turn to," says Dick Galloway, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. "The states are already tapped out, so it's going to mean a large loss of (teaching) staff."
But even more frightening to handicapped advocacy groups is the planned repeal of the federal handicapped education act.
Says Galloway: "We're going to find ourselves going back to case law again. And after four years, we'll be back to writing another (federal law). I don't think that the basic attitudes that prompted the law to be written in the first place have changed that much."