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WHO SHOULD BE PAYING COST OF SPECIAL EDUCATION?

In the face of determined opposition from parents, the Granite School Board backed down this week from a plan to disperse many handicapped children from special classes into regular classrooms - so-called "mainstreaming." But that leaves the district struggling to find the $1 million it might have saved in an already hard-pressed budget.

The district is not trying to cut programs for the handicapped; it is just trying to keep its head above water. The problem is that demands on the program are growing. Granite will need 19 new classes of handicapped children just for next year.Not only does the district lack the money for the expanded program, but there are no surplus classrooms available either.

Parents of handicapped youngsters are divided over "mainstreaming." Some feel their children do better in a regular classroom setting with "normal" children. Others feel their youngsters need the special environment and teachers in separate classes.

Many parents who packed the board meeting were worried that their handicapped youngsters might be neglected if relegated to an ordinary class in a neighborhood school where the teacher lacks specialized training and where the class already is overcrowded. Those are realistic and understandable concerns.

District officials might have saved themselves some grief if they had worked more closely with parents in drafting a proposed program change. However, that might have been difficult given the pressures and deadlines of budgetmaking.

If there is a real culprit, it is the federal government, which mandated special services for the handicapped in the 1970s but never lived up to its pledge to handle 40 percent of the cost. Support from Washington has never been more than 17 percent of the cost and currently stands at a meager 7 percent.

The state has also funded only a portion of the actual costs. The result is that local districts have had to pick up more and more of the expense of special education, up from 3 percent in 1985 to 17 percent today.

This whole affair is another all-too-frequent example of the federal government imposing rules and programs on local governments, business and other entities, then ignoring the expenses arising from such action.

The Granite District can be expected to solve its budget crisis. But with special classes for the handicapped spared, other district programs are bound to feel the sharp edge of the budget knife.