More Emphasis on I.D.E.A. Monitoring Is Sought
As they prepare for the upcoming reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, advocates and Congressional aides agree that the law itself does not need major renovation.
In interviews and testimony at a Congressional hearing, observers said last week that reforms should focus on the way the law is implemented, insuring that students with disabilities are not unnecessarily segregated and that the goals set for them are sufficiently high.
At a hearing last week of the House Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights, Alan Gartner, the dean of research at the City University of New York, said that while the I.D.E.A. is "a success'' in terms of insuring access to education for students with disabilities, educational outcomes for such youngsters are "disastrous.''
Mr. Gartner noted that students with disabilities drop out at twice the rate of the general student population, that less than half graduate, and that they suffer from high unemployment.
Indeed, many advocates placed a high priority on refocusing attention from children's access to educational services to the effectiveness of those services.
The I.D.E.A., which guarantees disabled children a "free, appropriate public education,'' requires school districts to develop an "individualized education plan'' for each student that sets out both short-term and long-term goals.
At the hearing, Dorothy Wendel, the vice president of the board of directors of Self-Initiated Living Options, a New York state-based independent-living group, called the I.E.P. process "a failure,'' contending that most plans she has seen "fail to contain the federally mandated elements.''
"I want to make their I.E.P. goals a way of showing them they can do something very well,'' she said.
Advocates called for better monitoring by state and federal officials.
Myrna Mandlawitz, a special assistant for government relations and external affairs for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said in an interview that as long as the U.S. Education Department sees that states have a process in place, they consider the state to be in compliance with the I.D.E.A.
What they should be doing, she said, is insuring that students display appropriate outcomes.
"They're very understaffed,'' Ms. Mandlawitz added.
Focus on Outcomes
Patty Guard, the deputy director of the office of special-education programs, acknowledged that the department must work on "tightening up'' corrective-action plans.
Although the Administration does not plan to submit an I.D.E.A. proposal until late summer at the earliest, Ms. Guard said, department officials also plan to emphasize student outcomes.
In particular, Ms. Guard said, an important priority would be insuring that high standards are set for disabled students and linking the I.D.E.A. to the standards-setting efforts envisioned in the Administration's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' and its plan for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Advocates also hope Congress will tighten rules requiring the placement of students in the "least restrictive environment'' that is appropriate for them.
At the hearing, witnesses specifically asked lawmakers to force states to change funding formulas that provide more money when districts place students with disabilities in non-mainstream settings.
Another key issue in the reauthorization is likely to be the overrepresentation of students from minority groups in special education, an issue the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., identified as a priority for him.
Mr. Gartner said minorities are not only overrepresented in special education as a whole, but in categories--severely emotionally disturbed and severely mentally retarded--that are also the most likely to land students in segregated educational settings.
"I have no doubt in my mind that racial discrimination ... does play a role,'' said Diana Autin, the managing lawyer for the New York-based Advocates for Children.
"One thing Congress can do is to hold the Department of Education more accountable for provisions that already exist,'' Ms. Autin said.
For example, she said, federal officials should force districts to stop using "notoriously biased'' tests for special-education placement.
Mr. Owens hopes to bring an I.D.E.A. bill before the full Education and Labor Committee before the end of the year. But Senate committees do not plan to begin work before summer, and final action is not expected until next year.