For 14 years, a special education preschool at the University of Idaho has provided hope for Moscow-area children attempting to overcome disabilities.

This January, it also will be a model to Idaho lawmakers and educators.Legislators already are grappling with how to implement federal laws passed in 1986 that will lower the legal school age for handicapped children to 3. That's expected to bring some 4,000 students with disabilities into Idaho schools by 1990, and will force districts to meet their special needs.

Through a partnership between the University of Idaho, the Moscow School District and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Moscow children with minor to severe handicaps spend four days a week preparing for the first day of kindergarten.

"Our program is a model not only for us, but something people in other school districts could look to for guidance," said Robert West, special education director for Moscow schools.

The Moscow preschool brings about 11 children into contact with special education teachers, a physical therapist, a speech disorders specialist and student teacher aides from the university.

Training for the students is highly individualized, said teacher Nancy Reese. She describes each child's regimen as a combination of what they will need to function in their environment and what is expected at their age.

"It has been proven that children benefit significantly from this early intervention," Reese said.

Children develop general and specific motor skills and basic concepts of "lessons," organization and time, she said. The preschool helps them overcome fear of the school setting and gives them invaluable social skills before they enter the public schools, Reese said.

West said paying for training early on in a handicapped child's life often eliminates the need to spend more money later, when training is more difficult.

Federal authorities agree. But while Congress is mandating the new program, states must find the majority of the funds to pay for it.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Jerry Evans estimates the change will cost Idaho $2.5 million in state funds next year. And besides the drain on resources, special education experts across the state are predicting a snarl of regulations and conflicting ideas of which students should be eligible for the programs.

So far, the Moscow program has survived largely through strength of will.

Finances now come primarily from the district and Health and Welfare, while the university provides class space, utilities and telephone services.

Because of the importance of Health and Welfare dollars in keeping the program afloat, that agency's definitions have been adopted on which students are admitted for preschool training.

"The eligibility for children right now is for children who are clearly diagnosed as handicapped in two or three domains," said Jennifer Olson, an associate professor of special education at the University of Idaho. "That creates a tough criterion, where you have to say one child can and another can't be helped."

Olson said the new law calls for preschool programs for all learning disabled and speech-impaired children. "That's going to throw open the doors, and we welcome that," she said.

Yet some lawmakers are unaware of how many children will have to be served, West said.

"We'll be real anxious in the public schools to see how those regulations define eligibility criterion for, say, a learning disability," he said. Since September, "we have had two to three inquiries a week that we have not been able to serve that under education regulations we might well have to serve."