Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, bowing to massive public pressure in an election year, yesterday withdrew six highly controversial proposals that would have returned to state and local governments a great deal of control over the education of handicapped children.
It was a rout for a major Reagan administration effort to reduce federal involvement in the schools.
"The question is how much trust do we delegate to these state boards and local boards," Bell told a hearing of the House Education and Labor subcommittee on select education.
He added that, after listening to hundreds of outraged parents and handicapped people denounce their local boards and his proposals at hearings around the country, he had become "convinced we have gone too far in some of these provisions."
Under pressure from the subcommittee he agreed to consider withdrawing all his proposals for later resubmission, rather than pulling only the six most controversial ones.
"There were so many protests that administration officials were afraid it would have an impact on the elections," said Judy Heumann, a member of the California Commission on Special Education. She predicted continuing pressure, at the remaining two public hearings, for withdrawal of all proposed changes in existing regulations of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.
Testimony at nine hearings so far has been overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the rules untouched, according to committee staff members. Among thousands of written comments, only a handful approved of any of the changes, the staff members said.
Bell had said the changes he proposed Aug. 4 would cut paperwork and save administrative money, while giving local jurisdictions more flexibility in educating the nation's 4 million handicapped youngsters.
But after a storm of protest, he said, he withdrew the following proposed changes for further study:
* Requirements that schools get parents' written consent to educational plans for their handicapped children would have been eliminated.
"We were concerned about the rare parent that doesn't care," Bell said, noting that many boards had been forced into expensive litigation to obtain parents' involvement. Testimony, however, indicated that most parents want the right to approve schools' approaches.
* Placement in the "least restrictive environment," as close as possible to the mainstream of school life, with a full range of possible treatments now required under the regulations, would have been left to school discretion.
Parents protested that this meant that handicapped children automatically would be labeled disruptive and would be excluded from regular classrooms.
"I didn't realize there was all this concern," Bell told the subcommittee. "We were, in fact, handing the discretion to local school boards, and parents weren't ready to do that."
* Related medical services from the schools -- including eyeglasses, insulin injections or other medication -- would have become optional instead of mandatory.
"We wanted to leave some local discretion here, but we concluded we better leave the rule in place," Bell said.
* Federal 30-day deadlines by which states must evaluate a child and set up an individualized education plan would have been eliminated, with states held only to "reasonable" time limits.
Bell said 80 percent of the states had not met the old deadlines and that he had wanted to give them more flexibility, "but the school districts said they didn't want to take the heat for setting the deadlines." Parents also had expressed "enormous apprehension" that their children would languish while states dawdled, he said.
* Evaluation personnel would not have been required to attend all meetings with parents on the education plans for their children, as they now are.
* The definition of "qualified personnel" required to deal with handicapped youngsters would have been deleted.
This raised fears among parents that decisions would be made by anybody who happened to be handy.
Bell said withdrawal of these six proposals means that all principles of the current rules in those areas will remain in effect when the final rules are issued, "no earlier than February."
He insisted, however, that some "technical or editorial" changes may yet be made, prompting subcommittee Chairman Austin J. Murphy (D-Pa.) to say he was "delighted, if not totally satisfied" with the announcement.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) agreed, telling Bell, "It's your sense of 'technical changes' that got us into this problem." The hearing room, jammed with people in wheelchairs and accompanied by seeing-eye dogs, erupted in applause when Miller insisted that all proposed changes to the law, and not just the controversial six, be withdrawn and resubmitted.
"Before this law, these wonderful local people on the school boards were locking these children up in basements and closets," he said. "Rights were vested in the states before this law, and they didn't do a damn thing for these students."
Bell insisted that some states had acted honorably, and stressed that he was "not weaseling" on his commitment to restore the existing rules. "I plead with you not to read into this an intent I don't have," he said.
He promised that all final rule changes would be submitted in one document and that he would be "open" about holding more hearings.