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Senate Panel Approves Bill To Reauthorize Spec.-Ed. Act

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Washington

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill late last week to reauthorize the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The plan would make it easier to remove disruptive special-education students from the classroom, and require other agencies to shoulder more of the cost of noneducational services for disabled children.

The bill "maintains a carefully crafted balance between the civil rights of children with disabilities and the increased flexibility that school districts and states require," said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy.

The challenge, many observers said last week, will be to maintain that fragile balance.

While the panel made relatively quick work of the special-education bill, S 1578, it was clear last week that some vexing issues have not been resolved. Some lawmakers indicated that they had decided to hold off on offering amendments until the measure hits the Senate floor in coming months.

Cutting Costs

The most significant change made to the bill that Mr. Frist introduced last month is a new provision stating that local school districts are to be considered "the payer of last resort" for noneducational services needed by disabled children, such as physical therapy, certain equipment, or counseling, placing more of the burden on state social-service agencies.

Schools are required by the IDEA to provide such services if a child needs them to benefit from an education. Current law calls for agencies other than schools to help pay for so-called related services, but does not require it.

Chairwoman Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., offered an amendment that would have limited districts' liability for the cost of related services to the amount of their IDEA grants and, in some cases, require the state to use some of the IDEA funds state agencies can retain for their own programs to help pay for such services. The measure failed by a voice vote.

Discipline Provisions

Mr. Frist did not include provisions on the highly sensitive issue of discipline in his February bill, and aides have negotiated for months with school groups and disability-rights advocates on scores of subtle changes in wording. But the discipline provisions approved unanimously last week are not significantly different from a draft issued by the committee in December. (See Education Week, March 13, 1995.)

Many educators have interpreted the IDEA, which guarantees students a "free, appropriate public education," as barring many disciplinary actions against disabled students. Like a draft issued by the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, S 1578 would offer schools more flexibility.

It includes complex time lines and standards schools would have to follow, but generally schools could remove from the classroom children who were involved with weapons, drugs, or behavior resulting in "serious bodily injury." Such students could be placed in an alternative setting for up to 45 days while a permanent placement change was considered.

If a student's behavior was deemed not to be a manifestation of his disability and he was involved with weapons or drugs, the school could expel and cease educational services for him as long as nondisabled students would be punished in the same way.

If parents contested the expulsion, the child would continue to receive services during the appeal process. But if parents contested moving a child into an alternative placement, the child would stay in that new placement until the matter was resolved.

The plan allows more limited latitude for schools to discipline or move disabled students who are "seriously disruptive," a category that is strictly defined. Regardless of whether the disruptions were related to the child's disability, schools would not have the option of cutting off services.

The panel also agreed to require schools to report the number and nature of the disciplinary actions they take against special-education students and track disabled children who are expelled from school.

The senators defeated on a 9-7 vote a nonbinding proposal by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., that sought to express the "sense of the Senate" that the IDEA should be fully funded before any other federal education programs receive funding increases.

When the law was enacted in 1977, Congress pledged to pay 40 percent of the cost of educating special-education students, but federal funding has never reached even one fourth that amount.

The House panel has not yet formally introduced its reauthorization bill, and it is unclear how quickly the reauthorization will move.

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