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House Panel Approves Special Education Bill

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Washington

Throughout this year's debate on the primary federal special education law, one of the most difficult issues has been whether schools should ever be allowed to cut off educational services to disabled students who commit acts that could trigger an expulsion.

While the issue is not entirely resolved, the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee last week made it likely that the final reauthorization bill will include language allowing such a cutoff.

The panel late last week voted 32-5 to pass HR 3268, which would reauthorize the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Voting against the bill were four Democrats opposed to many provisions and one Republican, Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey, whose state would lose money under the bill's proposed formula for allocating federal special education dollars to states.

Under both the House bill and a companion bill passed March 21 by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, schools could expel--and cease providing educational services for--a disabled student who brought illegal drugs or a weapon to school. The provision would apply as long as those acts were determined not to be a manifestation of the student's disability, and if a nondisabled student would be punished in the same way for the same act.

The Department of Education has maintained that the IDEA's requirement that disabled students be provided a "free, appropriate public education" prohibits cutting off services to special education students.

An attempt by Democrats last week to bar any service cutoff failed on a 21-17 party-line vote, following tense debate.

Because schools could cease providing services under both chambers' bills, the concept is unlikely to be dropped when a House-Senate conference eventually meets to hammer out differences.

Both bills would also make it easier for schools to remove from the classroom students involved with weapons or illegal drugs as well as those whose behavior results in serious injury. The House panel also accepted an amendment that would make it easier for schools to cope with--and, if necessary, remove from the classroom--a disabled student who disrupted others' learning. The Senate bill has a similar provision.

Many educators have interpreted the IDEA as barring many disciplinary actions against disabled students.

Protections Added

"The sanction of cessation of services for any child is wrong," said Rep. Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, the House committee's ranking Democrat. "We will be setting a precedent we will deeply regret."

Other lawmakers suggested that schools might take advantage of the federal government's giving them a green light to cut costly special education services by expelling students.

The lawmakers incorporated many suggestions of a coalition of general and special education groups that recently crafted a consensus plan in an effort to avoid derailment of the IDEA reauthorization. The vast majority of those groups oppose cutting off services, although they did not reach consensus on that issue. (See Education Week, May 22, 1996.)

The House panel adopted several amendments that would provide additional safeguards for special education students in disci- pline cases. One spells out some factors a panel would have to consider in determining whether a student's behavior was a manifestation of his disability. Another would require that a hearing officer review those decisions in cases where services are to be ended.

War Between States

Lawmakers also spent considerable time last week debating the IDEA's funding formula.

The Senate bill would maintain the current formula, which bases state grants on a count of disabled children. The House would phase in over 10 years a formula that steers more money to high-poverty areas and bases aid on a state's school-age population. Republicans argued that this would curb incentives to identify more students as having disabilities.

An attempt by Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., to keep the current formula failed on a 23-14 vote. Most members who voted for the amendment, like Rep. Andrews, are from states that would receive more money under the current formula.

The next hurdle for the IDEA legislation will be carving out time for floor debate with the number of legislative days in the congressional session rapidly diminishing.

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