Published Online: May 14, 1997

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IDEA Reauthorization Speeds Through Committees

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Washington

Basking in the rare glow of bipartisanship, the House and Senate education committees unanimously approved compromise bills last week to amend the nation's main special education law.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reauthorization, more than a year overdue already, is now on the legislative fast track and appears poised for final passage in a matter of days.

"Our goal is to pass this and get it to the president by Memorial Day," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. He added that he would reserve a slot on the Senate's busy legislative calendar for S216. The chairman of the House education committee, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said he expected the House bill, HR 5, to pass May 13.

"This is a strong agreement, and it has the full support of the president and the administration," added Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Little of the discord that brought the legislative process to a halt last year was evident among the bipartisan group that gathered at a news conference last week to celebrate the IDEA bills' passage through the two key committees.

The reauthorization legislation would rework the funding formula for grants to states after appropriations reach $4.9 billion, and allow local education agencies to reduce their spending slightly after appropriations pass the $4.1 billion mark. The companion bills also would ease litigation threats by requiring states to set up voluntary mediation systems to settle disputes over the placement of children with disabilities.

The compromise legislation was written in the past two months by Republican and Democrat lawmakers and staff aides, with input from education and disability-rights groups. ("Panels To Consider Compromise Spec. Ed. Bill This Week," May 7, 1997.)

Smooth Sailing

In the Senate session where committee members examine bills line by line, known as a mark-up, the bill's actual passage went faster than the accompanying round of thank-you's and appreciative nods. Members approved a package of technical amendments to clarify portions of the bill, and the House later followed suit.

But Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said he may propose an amendment on the Senate floor to mandate that the federal government pick up 40 percent of states' costs to implement the IDEA. Last year's $3.1 billion appropriation was less than 10 percent of states' total costs. But at the news conference, Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont Republican who heads the Senate education committee, said Mr. Gregg did not have enough votes to succeed.

Several House committee members raised concerns about provisions in the agreement and the back-room negotiations that created it. Two Democrats claimed they were left out of the process, but Republican leaders asserted that the meetings were open to all. Some committee members withdrew their amendments to ensure that the bill's quick passage would not be jeopardized.

Aside from winning final passage of the bill, the committee members agreed the next step would be persuading congressional appropriators to find more money for IDEA programs.

Staff Writer Jessica L. Sandham contributed to this report.

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