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Action Expected Soon On Special-Ed. Plans

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After months of behind-the-scenes discussions and multiple drafts of bills to reauthorize the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, lawmakers are gearing up to take action on the landmark special-education law.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy, introduced his reauthorization plan, S 1578, last month. House Republicans have not formally introduced a bill, but the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families released its third draft plan on Feb. 27.

The reauthorization is long overdue. In an attempt to carve out space in a busy election-year congressional schedule, the Senate plans to put S 1578 on a fast track, bypassing subcommittee consideration and moving the bill straight to the Labor and Human Resources Committee as early as March 20. The House subcommittee, which held a hearing on the IDEA last week, has not yet set a date to begin work.

The latest House draft and S 1578 follow largely the same blueprint, drawing in part on the Clinton 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 same curriculum as nondisabled students. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.)

They 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 and reporting requirements. Both would also reconfigure the IDEA's 14 discretionary programs, which include research, training, technology, and technical-assistance efforts.

Both plans also attempt to limit the circumstances under which public schools must pay for children with disabilities to be educated at private schools, especially when parents unilaterally enroll their children without notifying their public schools. Both the House draft and the Senate bill also strengthen provisions in current law that call for public agencies other than schools to help bear the cost of children's "related services," such as physical therapy.

One big difference between the plans is how they would divide federal special-education aid among states and districts. The Senate bill would maintain the current formula, which is based on a count of students eligible for special education. The House plan would base allocations on a state's total school-age population in an effort to reduce incentives to place children in special education, and also steer more money to high-poverty areas.

Disciplinary Issues

But last week's hearing made clear that the most contentious issue facing lawmakers is how much latitude schools should have to discipline dangerous or disruptive disabled children and to remove them from the classroom.

The law's so-called stay-put provision, which requires that students stay in their educational placement until parents and school officials agree on how to change it, has been interpreted to bar certain disciplinary action. The law and its regulations require lengthy administrative procedures that sometimes wind up in court to change a child's placement without parental consent.

The latest Senate bill does not include discipline provisions because many details are still being worked out, aides said. Those provisions should be ready by the time the full Senate committee takes up S 1578.

The House draft would allow school officials to move dangerous children with disabilities to an alternative placement for up to 45 school days without parental consent and, in some cases, allow such students to be expelled from school if their behavior is not related to their disability.

Many Democrats at the hearing questioned the need for such provisions and cautioned that they could make it too easy for schools to rid themselves of children who pose challenges.

"I'm not unwilling to make changes, but not based on anecdotes," said Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont.

Disability-rights advocates have made similar arguments. But there is significant support for giving schools more authority, an issue that has drawn attention amid a larger debate over violence in schools. In 1994, Congress made it easier to remove a disabled child who brings a gun to school from the classroom. (See Education Week, Nov. 30, 1994.)

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