Spec.-Ed. Bill Clears Panel, But Contentious Issues Remain
and Mark Pitsch
After 16 months of negotiations, the House panel charged with retooling the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act approved its reauthorization bill last week by a voice vote. But some of the most contentious issues remain unresolved.
Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, announced at the markup of HR 3268 that he and Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the panel's ranking Democrat, had agreed to continue negotiating on issues relating to discipline and lawyers' fees.
Some Democrats think the Republican-drafted bill would go too far in curtailing the idea's protections for children with disabilities. Like a companion Senate bill, it would grant schools more leeway to discipline disabled children and would limit the conditions under which parents could recoup legal fees in tussles with schools.
Those protections, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., argued, "hold this law together."
Most Democrats and some Republicans expressed skepticism over the bill's proposed funding formula. Mr. Kildee also noted his concern over plans to eliminate a program that supports the training of special-education teachers.
Mr. Cunningham acknowledged that the bill is a work in progress, and pledged to further refine the legislation as it approaches a full committee markup, which could take place as early as this week.
Whether lawmakers can produce a bipartisan bill remains to be seen. House Republicans could threaten to tie the idea bill to a contentious plan to replace many education programs with block grants, an idea they have been discussing for months. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)
HR 3268 will likely continue to move alone "as long as we have a bipartisan bill and the Democrats don't use obstructionist kinds of tactics," a Republican aide said.
The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee unanimously approved its idea reauthorization bill, S 1578, in March. (See Education Week, March 27, 1996.)
Both bills emphasize that disabled children should be held to high academic standards, have access to the same curriculum as other students, and participate in district and state assessments.
They would require states to offer mediation as an alternative to the law's more formal appeals process, relax some accounting and reporting rules, and limit the circumstances under which public schools must pay for private placements of disabled children.
One big difference between the bills is how they would distribute idea funds. The Senate plan would keep the current formula. The House would steer more money to high-poverty areas and base aid on a state's school-age population rather than a count of students eligible for special education. House Republicans said this would curb incentives to identify more students as having disabilities.
Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero-Barcel¢, Puerto Rico's congressional representative, withdrew a proposal to remove a provision capping special-education funding for Puerto Rico at fiscal 1996 levels after he was promised further negotiations. Aides said the cap was included because the new formula would otherwise result in the commonwealth's receiving a huge increase in idea money.
Mr. Kildee withdrew an amendment that would have strengthened provisions requiring state agencies other than education departments to reimburse schools for certain non-education expenses, primarily medical costs. But he pledged to bring the proposal up later if his concerns were not met.
HR 3268 would also cut the amount of idea money state education departments can retain to 10 percent so that more money flows to school districts. The U.S. secretary of education would have the discretion to increase the reserve to the current level of 25 percent.
The bills both contain provisions that would give schools more flexibility to discipline special-education students. Many educators and legal experts have interpreted the idea, which guarantees a "free, appropriate public education," as barring many disciplinary actions against disabled students.
The Senate includes complex time lines and standards, but generally both bills would let schools remove from the classroom for up to 45 days children who were involved with weapons or illegal drugs. Suspensions and alternative placements longer than 10 days can now be imposed only if a student brings a gun to school.
The 45-day suspensions could also apply under the Senate bill to students whose behavior resulted in "serious bodily injury," and under the House bill to those who committed "assault and battery."
HR 3268 would also let a hearing officer call for a similar suspension if a student was "a danger" to himself or others.
The House bill would also let 10 districts or consortia apply for waivers of special-education rules.