At the University of Oklahoma, they're worried about replacing 558 doors in Adams Center Dormitory at $300 a shot. At George Washington University, they're trying a design a laboratory table that a wheelchair can slide under. And in Iowa, Dr. Robert B. Benton the state's top school official, complaints, "the federal government should put its money where its mouth is."
The outcry is over civil rights but not those dealing with race, sex or religion. It is over two federal laws banning discrimination against the physically handicapped, a ban, that the National Education Association claimed "will have a more significant influence on schools than the Brown desegregation case."
The laws, which go into effect this summer and fall, touch virtually every school and college in America, including scores which have never and a civil rights "problem."
"I can't think of any federal legislation that has had a more direct tangible impact on us," declared Mar Worolstad, vice president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. "They're going to make every little liberal arts college in the country use resources that are hard to come by for aiding [handicapped] persons we may never see."
No one attacks the laws or denies that handicapped students have been discriminated against. "This is all very delicate," explained one educator. "No one wants to look like they're against cripples and blind people."
The real issue is money. State education officials estimate they'll be caught $2.7 billion short next school year under a two-year-old law providing that all handicapped children receive a "free appropriate public education" at the elementary and secondary levels beginning this fall. University officials estimate that it may cost them up to $4.2 billion to meet new regulations to carry out a second law banning discrimination against the handicapped in education and employment.
Nobody knows exactly how much money will be needed. Some colleges have had programs for the handicapped for years. Many newer school buildings will need little or no work. In other instances, classes can be rescheduled in rooms accessible to the handicapped. But in other places major structural changes will be needed in order to comply with the law.
The federal government has yet to put up a nickel to aid the colleges and this year will supply only about $70 of the estimated $1,200 extra it will cost elementary and secondary schools for each handicapped child.
The scope of physical renovation alone is mind bogling. Under regulations issued by the Department of stitutions will need to put in new ramps, elevators, lower the height of drinking fountains, enlarge toilet stalls and doors within the next three years.
A preliminary study at George Washington University estimated the cost could exceed $5.2 million. Ramps cost about $5,000 each, according to assistant treasurer Robert Dickman; elevators from $60,000 to $70,000 each, toilets from $2,000 to $3,000 a pair.
"It's a real problem for private institutions," Dickman said. "Everyone wants to comply with the law, and lot of the things we'd have done anyway. But Uncle Samuel has to pump up some resources to make this come to pass."
At the University of Oklahoma in Norman, officials estimate it may cost $1 million - $400,000 on elevators alone - to make one dorm meet regulations. Architect William Mathis said he has a four-man crew surveying the 259 buildings on campus to find where new elevators, toilet stalls, enlarged parking spots (parking spaces for the handicapped must be 11 feet wide instead of 8 feet, curb cuts, signs and ramps. "I wish someone would come up with a wheelchair that could climb stairs," Mathis said.
The university also fears it may have to replace thousands of dormitory room doors, which are too narrow for wheelchairs, at $300 to $700 a door. New laminated numbers, to replace painted ones to aid blinds students in finding their rooms - cost $6 to $10 a door.
The impact on the classroom is more immediate - and controversial.
Under the law, a free public education must be provided all of the nation's 6.7 million school-age handicapped children - no matter how severe the handicap. Schools will no longer be allowed to segregate handicapped students, but to the "maximum extent possible" must place them in regular classrooms. Many teachers will have to deal with handicapped children for the first time. And beginning this fall, a written "individual education program" is to be drawn up for each handicapped child.
Here again, the controversy is over money. Under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the federal government will pay 5 per cent, or about $70 per pupil next school year, 10 per cent the following year and 20 per cent in 1979-80. The total federal commitment rises from $387 million next school year to $3.2 billion in 1981-83.
States and localities will have to pick up most of the cost themselves. This "might well boomerang" against the handicapped. Terry Herndon, executive director of the NEA, the nation's largest teacher organization, recently warned a Senate subcommittee. "Seventy dollars is going to provide blessed little in the way of specialized education services to a handicapped child."
Herndon said local school boards will be faced with two alternatives: ignore the law or "compensate for inadequate federal funding by cutting other services, laying off teachers and slashing other programs which would undermine the quality of education services provided for all children."
"States are pledged to meet the objectives of the law," said Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III of Massachusetts, whose state enacted a similar law in 1972. "But goals and objectives alone offer false hopes to those who desperately need help."
Other state officials complain the law conflicts with their state constitutions, opens up a pandora's box of legal problems from parents of handicapped children, and uses a funding formula that favors rich school districts.
Proponents of the law argue that its critics are states' rights advocates far away from the front lines of education and have magnified problems way out of proportion. They oppose any "crippling" changes in the two federal laws.
"Some of the organizations that are complaining were not terribly involved in the enactment of the legislation. They have a tendency of look at it now and says. 'Oh God, it's real," said Joseph Ballard of the Council for Exceptional Children. "We believe the baseline provisions have got to be enforced without compromise."
Edwin Martin Jr., head of HEW's Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, concedes that the law comes "at a tough time, a period of entrenchment with schools and teachers being laid off."
"But the fact is many states have already implemented similar laws," he added. "The bottom line is we've had a free public education system for 200 years and the people who've needed help the most haven't gotten it."