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Thorny Issues Loom as Hearings on Spec.-Ed. Law Begin

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Washington

The House and Senate panels charged with retooling the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act launched hearings last week to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1975 law.

With the law's reauthorization now in Republican hands, and a deregulatory mood prevalent on Capitol Hill, many advocates for disabled children have been concerned that lawmakers will try to scale back the law's sweeping mandate and detailed protections.

At a joint hearing of his panel and its Senate counterpart, Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, tried to allay those fears.

"The intent is not to damage the law in any way," Mr. Cunningham said. "We want to find the problems and fix them."

The I.D.E.A. requires schools to provide disabled students a "free, appropriate public education" and funnels grants to states to help defray the costs of special-education services.

But federal funding of special education is a sore point in many school districts. When the law was passed, it authorized federal spending for each disabled child equal to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure. But that was not a binding promise, and appropriations have never exceeded 12.5 percent of the average.

The funding situation is fueling "a serious problem of backlash," said Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., who is a member of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Subcommittee on Disability Policy, which also held a second hearing last week. "This is not going to be an easy reauthorization."

Mediation Proposed

Witnesses called to testify because they had a hand in crafting the original law pointed out that the intent was never for the federal government to take over all fiscal responsibility for special education, but to protect the rights of students with disabilities.

The law was passed after a flurry of state cases and two important federal cases raised the issue of such students' rights to an education.

Lawmakers and advocates for the disabled alike voiced concern last week over the large amount of additional litigation that has resulted. Parents have the right to request due-process hearings--and to challenge schools' decisions in court--when they and school officials disagree over how best to educate a disabled child.

"If we do our job on this panel, we'd put you all out of work," Mr. Cunningham said as he addressed a panel of disability lawyers.

Lawmakers are considering adding provisions to the law to require that states offer some form of mediation as a first option before the hearing process begins, aides said last week.

Another contentious issue is disciplinary policies. Provisions in the I.D.E.A. and a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the issue require educators to go through a complex process in order to suspend disabled students for longer than 10 days. A few well-publicized cases involving disabled students have surfaced over the last year as the issue of guns and violence in schools gained a higher profile. (See Education Week, 11/30/94.)

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate subcommittee, said in an interview that the panel plans to look at how widespread the problem is before making policy changes.

Discipline Delay?

But the discipline question already has proved difficult.

The Senate panel planned in March to approve a bill extending for one year the parts of the I.D.E.A. that expire Oct. 1. The law's central mandate and the section regarding the major state-grant program are permanently authorized. But other sections--including training and research programs, as well as a program giving states seed money for serving disabled infants and toddlers--are not, and some advocates feared lawmakers might allow them to lapse. (See Education Week, 3/22/95.)

Lawmakers want to allay that fear, but some panel members were concerned that the discipline issue might be put off, and they would not commit to letting the measure pass unencumbered by amendments.

House and Senate aides stressed last week that Congress plans to take up the I.D.E.A. this year, with the House acting by July and the Senate in the fall. But the entire process is not likely to be completed before the programs expire.

An aide to Senator Frist said the extension measure will be introduced as soon as committee members have a chance to discuss the issue. The panel is considering holding separate hearings on the discipline issue, the aide said.

Report Issued

At the joint hearing last week, the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, released a report that includes wide-ranging recommendations for reauthorization of the I.D.E.A. The report drew from testimony at 10 hearings held around the nation last fall.

Some of the recommendations were:

Providing more flexibility in what schools must include in the individualized education plan that is required for every special-education student.
Requiring that recipients of teacher training grants insure that future special-education teachers have experience in the regular classroom.
Replacing the federal funding formula, which bases state grants on the number of disabled children living there, with a more general formula that assumes a percentage of a state's students will be disabled. The formula should also reward states that have improved graduation and employment rates of disabled students, the report says.

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