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Time Crunch Seen Threat to Spec.-Ed. Bills

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After voting to block any amendments, the House last week passed a bill by voice vote that would reauthorize the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

As of late last week, Senate lawmakers were continuing efforts to bring their bill, S 1578, to the floor.

Though the House measure, HR 3268, and the Senate bill have much in common--from encouraging more links between special and general education to limiting lawyers' fees in special education disputes--lawmakers will have to hammer out a few big differences between the two bills that seek to make sweeping changes in the 1975 law. But first, they will have to carve out time in a crowded legislative calendar that is increasingly clouded by the November elections.

Some advocates for the disabled fear that the time crunch could stymie the reauthorization. That would mean proposals in the bills that attempt to address widespread complaints that the law is too costly, bureaucratic, and litigious would die.

"It's clear there is a national debate on what the IDEA does and doesn't do, and if we don't address it, the potential is there for a worse backlash against special education," said Paul Marchand, the director of governmental affairs in Washington for The Arc, an Arlington, Texas-based advocacy group for people with mental retardation.

The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee voted 32-5 on May 30 to pass HR 3268. To avoid adding more stumbling blocks to an already-controversial bill, Republican lawmakers dropped a provision that would have authorized 10 districts or groups of districts to apply for waivers from many federal special education rules.

Republicans last week also agreed to drop a provision to authorize grants for up to three states to set up pilot projects that improve services--and control their cost--for infants and toddlers with disabilities. Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House panel, had pushed for the plan. In place of the pilot, lawmakers added language that urges all states to provide services to infants and toddlers in places such as the home or day-care centers instead of a specialist's office. Republicans argued that such an approach is more cost effective.

Funding Fight Ahead

While specific language will have to be hammered out, lawmakers have effectively sealed debate--for now--on student discipline, one of the stickiest issues in the IDEA debate. Under both chambers' bills, schools could expel, and cease providing educational services for, a disabled student who brought illegal drugs or a weapon to school. The service cutoff could 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.

One of the biggest differences that will have to be resolved if the IDEA makes it to a conference is how to divide federal special education dollars among the states.

The Senate 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. Proponents argue that this would curb incentives to identify more students as needing special education. That plan has faced stiff opposition from lawmakers whose states would lose money under the new formula. (See Education Week, June 5, 1996.)

To sweeten an otherwise bitter pill for some, the House bill now includes a funding measure intended to buffer a state's loss in aid from year to year. Some states would have their losses held harmless and continue to receive funding at their current levels. But those that would stand to lose more than 10 percent of what they received in the current fiscal year would have 10 percent of their 1996 dollars added back as a cushion.

Both the House and Senate versions call on states to adopt more "placement neutral" funding formulas to distribute special education aid among local districts, but the bills do not dictate what the formulas should look like. In some states, schools are rewarded financially for placing a child in a special school or class rather than a regular classroom with nondisabled students.

Vocational Education

On a separate subject, the fate of a measure that would reconcile two widely differing bills designed to pare down more than 140 federal vocational-education and job-training programs into a handful of block grants to the states also remained undecided late last week.

House and Senate conferees on the measure, S 143, met during the week before the Memorial Day recess for the first time since the bill was voted out of both chambers last fall. But it soon became clear that there was little agreement between the two sides on many of the leading issues. (See Education Week, May 29, 1996.)

An aide to the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee said last week that no additional meetings had been scheduled and that it was unlikely that any would occur this month. Observers said it was possible that the measure would fail to be enacted, both because of the pressure of the legislative calendar and because some Republicans might be reluctant in an election year to pass a measure that Mr. Clinton has publicly supported.

Welfare Reform

Meanwhile, the Republican-backed welfare-reform bill sailed through two House panels last week after lawmakers altered provisions on how states should provide child care. The full House is expected to take up the bill within the next two months.

The Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee approved an amendment requiring states to adopt health and safety standards for child-care providers. It also approved an amendment that would require states to continue to make welfare payments to mothers with children under age 11 who could not find child care and were unable to work as a result. A previous version of HR 3507 would have eliminated all benefit payments to people on welfare who have children younger than 7.

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