WASHINGTON — Justin Dart Jr., whose father was a member of President Reagan's original "kitchen cabinet," has resigned as commissioner of rehabilitation services in the Education Department because the office is "plagued with management problems," he said Wednesday.
Dart's resignation, which was requested by a Reagan Administration official and was made public Tuesday, was the culmination of a bitter struggle between Dart and his superior, Madeleine Will, assistant education secretary for special education.
A furor has followed the resignation, including a move in Congress to investigate the $1.5-billion program, which provides educational services for handicapped adults.
The dispute between Dart and Will boiled over on Nov. 18 when Dart delivered what he called a "statement of conscience" in testimony before the House Education and Labor subcommittee on select education. He charged that the program was "afflicted . . . by profound problems in areas such as management, personnel and resource utilization."
In dealing with the feud, the Administration had to decide which ally of the President to offend: Will, wife of conservative columnist George Will or Dart, son of the late Justin Dart Sr., who was a premier Republican Party fund-raiser and one of the handful of wealthy Los Angeles-area businessmen who persuaded Reagan to run for governor in 1966. The group became known as the President's California kitchen cabinet.
The Administration chose to get rid of Dart, asking for his resignation soon after his testimony.
Loye Miller, spokesman for Education Secretary William J. Bennett, said that the dispute had "turned into an intolerable situation," and that Dart had been told that Will "had the confidence of the secretary."
In an interview, Dart described a "paternalistic bureaucracy," in which he was required to get advance approval from Will or a "high member of her staff" each time he sent a package by Federal Express.
"Mismanagement and morale" are both problems, he said, citing a "virtual hemorrhage of our top professional staff."
Dart's program, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, makes grants to states, helping them provide training and education that will make handicapped people employable.
Dart, 57, confined to a wheelchair after suffering polio in 1948, was appointed by Reagan in September, 1986. He said that he resigned because he was unwilling to be "a rubber-stamp figurehead in the government."
Dart said he understood that he might be forced out when he took the unusual step of reading his "statement of conscience" to the subcommittee instead of reading remarks that had been approved by the Education Department.
After more than a year of trying to resolve problems quietly, Dart said, he went public because "I thought it was important to millions of people."
In his statement, Dart said that "tragically, a small but all too effective minority in the federal service and in the community seem dedicated to a divide and conquer strategy of promoting hostility among government, advocates and professional service providers."
Advocates for the handicapped reacted angrily to his forced resignation. Many are telephoning and writing the White House and Congress.
In Seattle, Paul Dziedzic, president of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, said: "It is a real day of shame for the Administration when a person like Justin Dart has to be sacrificed."
In Los Angeles, Charlotte Bly-Magee, director of the Southern California Projects With Industry, said that Dart's departure "will set the movement (for rights of handicapped people) back."
Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee, was furious about the forced resignation, calling it the removal of "a high-level executive whistle-blower."
Owens said he has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the matter. He said that Dart's testimony before his subcommittee "confirmed everything that everyone has been complaining about across the country."
Dart's resignation becomes effective Dec. 15.
"I have been a full-time advocate for the rights of the disabled and I will continue to do that," Dart said.