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Education Officials Cite Concerns About Implementing IDEA Rules

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With its emphasis on linking the regular curriculum and disabled students' learning, the revised Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is putting some education officials in an unusual position.

On the one hand, they praise the goal behind the changes. On the other, they worry that the proposed regulations for the federal law will create an extra burden for schools.

The proposed rules, recently released by the Department of Education, are intended to clarify new parts of the law. Officials from the office of special education programs have traveled across the country to gather comments and complaints before they issue final rules early next year. ("Proposed IDEA Rules Target Testing, Accountability," Oct. 29, 1997.)

One highly touted change in the law and the related regulations is a requirement that a disabled student's primary general education teacher be included in meetings of the student's individualized-education-program team if the student receives services in a regular classroom.

Proposed Rules for IDEA

The Department of Education's proposed regulations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act include requirements that:

  • States demonstrate that they have established goals for the performance of children with disabilities that are consistent, to the extent possible, with state goals for all children;
  • States prove that children with disabilities are included in state and school district assessments, with accommodations as necessary;
  • State and school officials ensure that procedures are put in place to allow for mediation of special education disputes and that mediators are not employees of state or local education agencies; and
  • Mediation is conducted by qualified, impartial individuals trained in effective mediation techniques.

Some state directors of special education are worried that the mandate may prove to be unduly taxing for schools. While their view of the new law is generally favorable, in interviews and at a recent meeting they said that administrators will have to hire substitute teachers to cover the general education teacher's class while he or she attends IEP meetings.

"Nobody disagrees with the overall concept," Robert Marra, the special education director for Indiana, said in an interview. "But how do you really do that in the daily operation of a school?"

Finding enough substitute teachers may be a problem in Indiana, he added.

William Penn, the director of special education for Pennsylvania, estimated that the requirement would cost the districts in his state a total of $3 million to $6 million.

"It's going to be a logistical nightmare for principals," he said in an interview.

Teachers' Perspective

The IEP change is intended to improve the education of disabled students while also helping general education teachers better understand their students' disabilities. In a related provision, the new law says that the curriculum for disabled students must be tied to the curriculum in the general classroom.

"You can't expect that access will be meaningful to a student without the teacher being part of the IEP team," said Michael Hardman, the associate dean for research at the University of Utah's graduate school of education. "It only makes sense for a general education teacher to be on the IEP team."

The 2.2 million-member National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, supports the provision.

Diane Shust, a senior professional associate with the NEA, said many teachers complain that they are assigned disabled students but receive no training on how to work with them and are shut out of the IEP team meetings because of their class schedules.

"Our members will want to be in on that planning, they'll want to learn and devise strategies for the child," she said.

Jay McIntire, a policy specialist for the Council for Exceptional Children in Reston, Va., said many general education teachers want a better understanding of the disabilities of students who are mainstreamed into their classrooms. "When they're in those classrooms, they bring their disabilities with them," Mr. McIntire said. "Lots of times, general education teachers say, 'I don't know anything about the IEP.'"

While coordinating the teachers' schedules could be a challenge, Mr. McIntire said he feels the process is worth the extra time and coordination. "The focus of the law is on the needs of children with disabilities," he said.

Working with the IEP team could also further the general education teacher's professional development, Mr. Hardman said.

At a stop in Kansas City, Mo., late last month timed to coincide with the National Association of State Directors of Special Education's annual meeting, Thomas Hehir, the director of the Education Department's special education office, and other federal officials heard complaints from state directors about a wide range of topics in the revised law, from mediation to IEPs.

Mr. Hehir acknowledged the complaints and said the department would carefully weigh the comments. "There's a lot we need to consider before we go into final regulations," he said.

Weighty Document

While most state directors agreed that they won't know the full effect of the new IDEA for some time, they said they found the proposed regulations confusing.

The 109-page document includes portions of the revised law, a preamble, plus pages of notes meant to clarify the proposals. That can make the proposal hard to read, many educators said.

The proposed rules "look more like an agreement for conducting business that would have been written by the Palestinians and Israelis," joked Jeananne Hagen, the special education director for Iowa.

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