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Here we go again!

The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee is considering special education needs, and we're revisiting the ghosts of legislative sessions past.Groups that advocate for special needs groups bring out some of their saddest cases for the special education presentation as they tell legislators that school programs for handicapped youngsters are not adequate.

And the saddest of all sadnesses is that it's true.

For years, Utah legislators have underfunded special education programs, knowingly providing less money than could possibly meet the known demand. When the legislators wrap it up and go home, school districts are left to cope the best they can with the results. That has meant in recent years that special education has been subsidized by regular education programs.

Couple that with the fact that the federal government has never made good on its promise to help states meet the exceptional needs of handicapped students and you have the makings of an ongoing fiasco.

The feds started it by passing a law mandating education services to every child in "the least restrictive setting." Parents understandably took up the cudgel, demanding that education systems accommodate children who, in the past, might never have left their own homes. The price tag for some of those youngsters is enormous - many times the amount spent on educating a "normal" child.

Granite District is currently involved in a lawsuit with a family whose child requires constant nursing care. The estimated cost of having the child in a regular school setting for a year is about $36,000. Compare that with the state average expenditure per student (1989-90) of $2,598.

Local districts look at those kinds of costs and cringe. The simple fact is that Utah's services to handicapped children are suffering. Districts are maintaining the effort required by law, but that doesn't mean they are keeping up with needs as their special education populations grow.

Granite is a good case in point. Budget cuts this spring reduced special education personnel by more than 40 positions. That means larger classes, less individual attention, less occupational and physical therapy, less speech therapy, less of all kinds of special services essential to handicapped children. Fewer of the borderline cases are being referred for help.

When Washington created the special education law, states were promised the federal government would pick up a significant share of the costs. Congress has never come close to providing its fair share.

That leaves states such as Utah with the mandate but without the means.

Obviously, federal taxes and state taxes come from the same pockets, but Utah loses flexibility to juggle money when the feds keep more of it in Washington.

Few people question the philosophical position that every child deserves the best that education can provide. But when it comes to practicalities, they look at the size of the bills and balk. Some legislators, understandably, resent the federal edict that leaves THEM looking stingy when special education budgets come up short.

Almost everyone agrees that dollars spent helping handicapped children to reach whatever potential nature granted them save dollars in social services at the other end of the equation. The question becomes: Can we afford to save that money?

Utah's legislators are not unfeeling. Every session, they look at the figures and try to close the gap.

My prediction for 1991: They'll try again, but special education will continue to be underfunded and all students in the system will feel the pinch.

It's time for the federal government to make good its promise of support for the programs it mandated.