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Discipline Resurfaces as IDEA Concern at Hearing

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Republicans replayed a familiar litany of complaints about the main federal special education law last week during a joint House-Senate hearing to examine the process the Department of Education used in writing new rules for the law.

Judith E. Heumann

At issue was whether the department has misinterpreted recent amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in draft regulations aimed at clarifying its provisions. The department released its proposed IDEA rules last October and plans to make them final next month. The IDEA was amended last June.

Last week, as in the past, discipline was again the top complaint for Republicans. But Education Department officials indicated that they will not back down on their interpretations of the IDEA's limits on suspensions of disabled students.

Tension over the two positions was evident at the hearing. House and Senate members from both parties said they feared that discord over the draft rules could unravel delicately brokered agreements on the IDEA amendments. Last year, disability-rights and education groups came together in an unprecedented coalition to find a compromise so the amended law would be authorized and receive funding.

The emotional debate on April 22 called to mind face-offs during the tedious, three-year reauthorization process, in which advocates for the disabled squared off with school administrators over whether--and how--students with disabilities should be suspended or expelled.

Members of the two committees are reviewing last week's testimony and have not decided if they will hold more hearings or offer legislation, said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for the Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "There will be more action, but it's not clear what it will be."

'10-Day Rule'

Just one year ago, lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the discipline debate announced they had finally reached a compromise on the most contentious issues in the IDEA reauthorization, including language that would assure disabled students continuing educational services if they were expelled. ("IDEA Reauthorization Speeds Through Committees," May 14, 1997).

That bipartisan bliss was noticeably absent last week as Republican members used the hearing as an opportunity to charge that Education Department staff aides had shut them out of the regulation-writing process.

"I must admit I am very dismayed in the manner that the administration has treated Congress," said Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "We fully expected to be apprised during the regulatory process."

Mr. Goodling, who also said he would like to see an increase in federal special education spending, added that the department had ignored his requests for information on the rules process.

But Judith E. Heumann, the department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said her staff had kept House Republicans informed of the agency's intentions and had received no objections.

Further, House and Senate Democrats charged that the GOP is merely seeking to make changes to the law that would violate the agreement made last year.

"What are we doing here today?" said Rep. Matthew G. Martinez, D-Calif., to the applause of many disability-rights activists in the standing-room-only crowd of about 150 people. "If the purpose of this hearing is to lay a foundation for reopening the statute, those of us who voted for a bipartisan bill will not go back on our agreement."

Much of the debate since the draft regulations were released last October has centered on the "10-day rule," in which the Education Department has proposed that disabled students may be suspended only for 10 days, total, during a school year without free education services or a review of their educational placements. The GOP members argue that past federal court decisions allow schools to suspend disabled students for up to 10 days at a time.

Ms. Heumann said the department had received many queries about schools' rights to suspend disabled students, and had prepared its guidance so that students would not receive repeated 10-day suspensions.

She called the interpretation balanced. "I believe we have created a policy that looks to ensure disabled children are not cut off from educational services," she said.

"If a child were being truant for two weeks, we would be very concerned about what was happening to that child," while he or she was away from school, she added.

In Colorado, districts have used the 10-day rule for years without problems, Brian A. McNulty, the state's assistant commissioner of education, told the panel members. He said districts should not wait until they reach the 10-day point to review a placement if the child's behavior warranted longer suspensions.

Time-Line Questions

Another concern for some Republicans is the time line for rewriting all disabled students' individualized education programs to comply with the new law. The Education Department has proposed that schools complete that task by July 1, a date that administrators have protested is too soon, particularly given that the rules themselves are not yet final.

Ms. Heumann said the issue was a concern. "We are looking very closely to come up with an effective solution to the problem," she added.

The Education Department has received more than 4,500 written comments on the regulations and is still sorting through them, Ms. Heumann said, noting that department officials have also held public hearings and attended education conferences across the country to meet with administrators.

"I personally came here to assure you that, as members of Congress, your comments carry great weight," she said.

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