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The federal government created a king-size can of worms for America's school systems when it dictated that each handicapped child receive an education in "the least restrictive environment."

Although most feeling people agree that all handicapped youngsters should be helped to achieve whatever educational potential they possess, there is legitimate room for discussion of how best to fulfill that need.Let me declare my own personal involvement up front here. I have a handicapped daughter, now an adult. She received special education services until she reached the legal end of eligibility at age 22. I'm grateful for all the services she received and aware that they cost taxpayers more than educational services for my "normal" children.

Even with my personal biases, I believe Judge David Sam acted responsibly this week when he issued a decision that school districts aren't required to provide nursing services for a child in order to keep her in the classroom.

The emotional trappings of such a situation are enormous. Nothing is more certain to tug at the heartstrings than a parent's appeal to a school board for special services for a child with special needs.

And from the educator's perspective, nothing becomes more complex than trying to meet those special needs for every child in a district.

When you put a district's finite financial resources on one side of a scale and the heart-rending needs of a handicapped child on the other, you have a classic dilemma worthy of a Solomon.

The costs of providing a nurse for a child who needs constant surveillance to be certain nasal tubes don't clog are enormous - estimated at $30,000 a year in this instance. Divided among "normal" children that $30,000 covers the costs of roughly 10 students.

Another district in Salt Lake Valley faced an even more costly option for a child who was emotionally disturbed. The parents wanted the district to provide education for the children in a full-time, very expensive institutional setting.

The costs for educating that one child in what the parents said was the "least restrictive setting" would have approached six-figure totals.

Boiled down to its emotion-fraught bottom line, the question becomes: Does a school district sacrifice money from its general accounts (in a state where the expenditure per-child is the least in the country) to provide extraordinary educational opportunity for one child?

Crass as it may seem to weigh human needs against dollars, that's the frank reality school districts face as they try to achieve that elusive fairness everyone wants. Not a pleasant position to be in.

If blame were placed where it logically belongs, the federal government should step up and take its lumps. When it mandated the program for children with disabilities, it promised to share the costs. The money from Washington has never come close to fulfilling the promise.

Isolated from the passion that arises when special education cases are taken to court, federal bureaucrats can afford to ignore the need they created by their edict. It's never the feds to whom unhappy parents take their gripes when demand outreaches dollars.

Utah's state funding for special education programs also has historically fallen short of demonstrated needs. The Legislature added a bit to the pot this year, and that will take a little pressure off local districts.

But until resources can realistically match needs, "education in the least restrictive setting" will remain an unachievable ideal and school districts will be scrambling for the least controversial alternatives.