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Coalition Unveils Consensus To Retool Special-Ed. Law

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Fearful that several difficult issues could derail a pending reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a broad coalition of general and special education groups emerged last week with what they have billed as a consensus plan to retool the law.

For the second week in a row, House committee members put off consideration of the IDEA--in large part to accommodate the coalition's work.

"We said [to lawmakers], if you want a bill that's universally supported, you need to give us time to put universal support together," said Kari Arfstrom, a legislative specialist with the American Association of School Administrators in Rosslyn, Va. "This whole negotiation process among the groups has been pretty much unprecedented."

After sequestering themselves for more than a week, the group hammered out a document that they hope lawmakers will use as a starting point when the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee takes up renewal of the landmark special-education law, which aides said could be as early as this week.

A total of 39 national organizations have signed on to the coalition plan. Many of the groups historically have butted heads over the IDEA, with disability-rights advocates defending its protections for special education students and their parents and broader education groups generally pushing for more school flexibility.

The coalition was unable to agree on a few issues, the most significant being whether schools should ever be allowed to cut off educational services to special education students who commit violent acts that could trigger an expulsion. Both the House bill and its Senate counterpart would allow such cutoffs under some circumstances.

Republican aides said last week they were impressed by the coalition's work. But they said it was unlikely that lawmakers would completely replace the bill approved by a House subcommittee last month.

"I see us agreeing on a great deal of this," one committee aide said. "But there are some big, thorny issues out there that will ultimately be decided by our members during the course of debate at the full committee level. The risk [of derailment] isn't over."

After the House subcommittee passed HR 3268, it was clear that many groups had concerns about it. Lobbyists saw the chances of a bill making it through Congress this year--with reauthorization already long overdue--slipping away as organizations and lawmakers became mired in debate over issues such as discipline and lawyers' fees.

Those concerns led to a May 1 letter in which 29 national organizations asked lawmakers for time to reach a consensus.

Coalition Plan

Many details were unclear late last week, but elements of the coalition's agreement that part company with HR 3268 include:

  • Additional limits on states' authority to waive their own personnel standards for special education in times of regional shortages. Some groups felt the House bill gave states too much latitude.

    The House bill also included a provision allowing 10 districts or consortia to apply for waivers from federal special education rules. The coalition would ban waivers of certain rules, such as the requirement that disabled students receive a free, public education in the "least-restrictive environment" possible.

  • Provisions that would make it easier for schools to cope with--and, if necessary, remove from the classroom--a special education student who disrupts other students' learning. The House bill did not deal with the issue of disruption, addressing only the discipline of violent students.
  • Clarification of provisions that would encourage mediation and limit lawyers' fees. The plan would draw a "bright line" in describing situations in which parents could recoup lawyers' fees in disputes with school officials. The plan also would require states to offer parents the chance to go through mediation without lawyers present for either side. Many had criticized the House bill's language as too vague in these areas.
  • Retaining the current division of federal funds between states and local districts. Under current law, states can retain up to 25 percent of their allocations, passing at least 75 percent to districts. The House bill envisioned a 90-10 split, with states allowed to pursue a waiver from the federal officials to use up to 25 percent.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee unanimously approved its IDEA reauthorization bill, S 1578, in March. (See Education Week, March 27, 1996.)

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