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Draft Plans To Reauthorize Spec.-Ed. Law on Same Course

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Washington

A draft Senate proposal for reauthorizing the primary federal special-education law indicates that how to divide federal aid among states and school districts may become a contentious issue when lawmakers retool the law next year.

The draft revision of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, released by a Senate subcommittee last week, includes no proposals related to disciplinary policy, which is likely to be the most sharply contested issue of all. But Senate aides said they were debating language that could affect more students than a draft House plan in granting school officials more authority to remove dangerous or disruptive children from the classroom.

The bipartisan Senate proposal, crafted by aides to the Subcommittee on Disability Policy, is a "discussion draft" that has not been approved by lawmakers. The counterpart House panel issued a draft proposal of its own last summer, and revised it earlier this fall. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

No bill has been introduced in either chamber, and most observers say that no action on the IDEA is likely until next year. The Senate has set a Dec. 4 deadline for comments on its draft.

One big difference between the two drafts is how they would distribute IDEA funds. The Senate plan would keep the current formula. The House draft outlined a formula similar to one proposed by the Clinton administration, which would base money on a state's total school-age population rather than a count of students eligible for special education. The House formula would also steer more money to high-poverty areas and cut the amount of IDEA money state education departments can retain to 10 percent, from up to 25 percent, so that more money is passed to districts.

"Some things we elected not to tackle because of their controversial nature," said Patricia Morrissey, the Senate subcommittee's staff director.

Disciplinary Issues

Some observers say the House plan is politically untenable because in an era of tight federal budgets, it would cost some districts money.

Another thorny issue is discipline. The IDEA guarantees disabled students a "free, appropriate public education," and its rules make it difficult to alter a disabled child's educational placement without his parents' consent. Congress enacted an exception to those rules last year, allowing schools to temporarily move disabled students to an alternative educational setting if they bring a gun to school.

Many education groups want lawmakers to give educators more latitude, while disability-rights advocates fear that such policies could make it too easy to "warehouse" students or deny them services.

The House draft would make it easier to remove a dangerous student from the regular classroom. It would also allow schools to discipline violent disabled students as they would nondisabled students--even to expel them without offering services--if their behavior does not stem from their disabilities.

Senate aides are considering proposing language that would make it easier to remove "seriously disruptive" disabled students, as well as violent students, from the regular classroom.

The House and Senate draft plans are similar overall and draw in part on the administration's reauthorization plan. Both emphasize that children with disabilities should be held to high academic standards, participate in district and state assessments, and have access to the general curriculum.

Emphasis on Mediation

Both drafts reject the administration's proposal to abolish the 13 categories of disability used to qualify children for IDEA services, and they propose no significant changes in eligibility rules. The House's most recent draft proposed creating a new disability category that was proposed by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill--neurobiological brain disorder--but aides said last week that they had received so many negative comments that they would strike the IDEA.

Following the administration's lead, both drafts would reconfigure the IDEA's 14 discretionary programs, which include research, training, technology, and technical-assistance initiatives. The House plan would collapse these categorical programs into three funding pools, with an unspecified funding ceiling. The Senate proposed six categories and its draft would authorize $254 million a year, essentially the same as current funding levels.

The draft plans also would require states to offer mediation as an alternative to the law's more formal appeals process, limit the conditions under which parents can recoup legal fees in disputes with schools, and relax some of the law's accounting measures.

For example, the proposals would ease the "maintenance of effort" rules that essentially prohibit districts from spending less on special education than they have in the past, except when enrollment drops. The drafts would allow districts to scale back funding in some other circumstances, such as when a high-wage worker is replaced with a less senior employee or especially costly students leave a district.

But many education groups say that the proposals do not go far enough to provide relief from the fiscal bind districts find themselves in as special-education costs grow but the federal share of such costs does not.

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