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Rifts Stymie Efforts To Retool Special Ed. Law

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Washington

Superintendent Cheryl Wilhoyte of the Madison, Wis., schools had hoped for relief when Congress began to retool the primary federal special education law.

But after nearly two years of work, lawmakers here adjourned earlier this month without passing changes in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), leaving the current law in effect.

Ms. Wilhoyte said she doesn't know how much longer her 25,000-student district will be able to juggle the needs of its overall student body with those of its special education students, who make up 13 percent of the Madison public schools' K-12 enrollment.

Officials like Ms. Wilhoyte had looked to Washington for reforms that would lower school costs by requiring other agencies to help pay for some special education services, reduce costly litigation, and cut paperwork.

"As state and federal resources shrink, we're in a real dilemma," she said last week. "For those of us responsible for equity for all children, we see that the balance has tipped, and we can't keep pace with the need."

The IDEA, which dates to 1975, requires that students with disabilities be provided a "free, appropriate public education." Originally, the federal government pledged to pay up to 40 percent of special education costs, but Congress has never come close to meeting that goal.

As a result, states and local school districts bear the lion's share of the law's guarantees.

Before Congress adjourned, both the full House and a Senate committee had approved bills to reauthorize the IDEA.

But lukewarm support from outside groups plus internal disagreements among lawmakers over a wide range of issues--from disciplining special education students to distributing federal special education dollars--contributed to the stall in completing the renewal of the law.

Major national education groups expressed frustration that the reauthorization was stymied, but many parent and disability-rights advocates breathed a sigh of relief as provisions that would have curtailed some student rights were stopped in their tracks.

More Backlash?

Many school groups feel the complex law is too burdensome and costly. But many disability and parent groups think that what needs to be fixed is how schools carry out the law.

For a while, the sides came together. In May, 39 general and special education groups presented a compromise proposal to lawmakers. But as the reauthorization process wore on, only a few groups threw their support behind the House and Senate bills, which diverged in some key areas from the compromise plan.

The Clinton administration did not take an official position on either. And disagreements among lawmakers over several difficult issues made for division on Capitol Hill, too. ("Coalition Unveils Consensus To Retool Special-Ed. Law," May 22, 1996.)

"The bill just never had the push behind it, just tepid support. People were fighting each other within their [party] caucuses to the bitter end," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "We were unhappy, the parents were unhappy, so members couldn't go home with a straight face and say, 'Well, we did it.'"

Some observers fear that not moving forward with changes to the law will mean increased frustration with special education nationally.

"The backlash now is very real," said Myrna R. Mandlawitz, the special assistant for government relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. "And now there's just more and more opportunity for these issues to fester--they're not going away."

Divide Over Discipline

The backlash and the difficulty of federal special education policymaking revolved around issues such as discipline and school safety. Both the House and Senate bills would have permitted schools, under some circumstances, to cut off educational services to special education students who committed dangerous acts that would lead to expulsion.

Such talk, however, aroused fears that schools might use such a provision to exclude difficult children. Many parents and disability-rights advocates saw it as an assault on the long-protected right of children with disabilities to receive an education--a move that made supporting either bill virtually impossible.

"We were more willing to take the risk of backlash than having uneducated kids on the street," said Kathleen Boundy, the co-director of the Center for Law and Education, a legal-advocacy group in Boston.

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