D.C. Spending Debate Targets Choice, Special Education
The District of Columbia schools have again become the battleground for Congress' annual tug-of-war over partisan education agendas, with this year's battles focusing on the capital city's special education system and school choice.
Of late, Republicans have used the legislation that controls federal spending on Washington's schools as a way to focus GOP educational priorities on the one school district Congress directly oversees.
This year, Democrats are determined not to be left out of the show. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., wants to add language on financing school construction and reducing class sizes, two of his party's top priorities this year.
The House approved its version of an appropriations bill, which used essentially the same language as the Senate's bill, in a 214-206 vote last month, while the Senate is expected to vote this month.
"Our Republican colleagues have given us another opportunity to debate the differences in our respective approaches to public education," Mr. Daschle said at a recent news conference. "And we intend to make the most of it."
The Washington appropriations bill "has been used as a message bill for the majority," said Andy Rotherham, a legislative specialist with the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators. The appropriations bills have become increasingly attractive to members as a way to get their priorities passed, he said.
Special Education Focus
President Clinton has already threatened a veto of the House bill, partly because it includes a $5.4 million voucher plan to help about 2,000 low-income Washington students attend the private, parochial, or public school of their choice. The proposal, sponsored by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, has repeatedly appeared in District of Columbia appropriations bills and other GOP-backed legislation. ("House Passes D.C. Voucher Bill 203-202; Veto Threatened," Oct. 15, 1997.)
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who sponsored a similar plan last year, is also considering offering such a measure on the Senate floor, according to his spokesman, Matt Smith.
The appropriations bills would also provide more funding for charter schools in the 77,000-student district, giving such schools an unsolicited, first-time contribution of $20.4 million from the federal government. This year, 4,400 students are expected to attend chart schools in Washington.
Another prime GOP issue, increased aid for special education, has received extended play. Congress is poised to allow the Washington district an 18 percent increase in its total education budget--from $672.4 million to $793.7 million, including $644.8 million in federal dollars--mainly to deal with problems in the special education system.
School administrators asked Congress for $156 million for special education in fiscal 1999, double the amount they requested for fiscal 1998.
Of that $156 million, school officials project $44 million would go to private school tuition for special education students the school district is unable to accommodate, $24 million to transport those students to private schools, and $3 million to pay legal fees in disputes over student placements.
Washington Superintendent Arlene Ackerman blames her district's rising special education bill on prior mismanagement. Because previous school administrations failed to deliver services required by federal and local laws, judges issued a series of tough rulings that drove up costs, Ms. Ackerman said. "It creates a snowballing effect," she said in an interview.
Leeway on IDEA
The bill would also give the schools more leeway in meeting requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law.
For instance, the district would be allowed up to 120 days--instead of its current 50-day limit--to evaluate a student after a referral for a suspected disability. The federal government does not mandate a specific number of days, but requires that an evaluation be completed in "reasonable time."
The House Appropriations Committee believed that the 50-day requirement--which was set out in a 1970s court order--was unreasonable and was spurring many costly lawsuits, said Elizabeth Morra, the committee's spokeswoman. "Our biggest concern here is, money needs to be directed toward special education needs of the children, not attorneys," she said.
But disability-rights groups are raising red flags.
"We're definitely concerned with the 120 days, especially considering its referral to evaluation, not services," said Beth Foley, a policy specialist with the Council for Exceptional Children in Reston, Va. "That's very lengthy."
She also held out hope that the school district's special education mediation system, which is still in its early stages, will help cut back on court cases by offering parents and educators an opportunity to discuss disagreements before a lawsuit is filed.
The proposal would also limit the amount of lawyers' fees in special education cases in the city's schools--an issue that was raised following reports that some lawyers representing Washington parents have made millions of dollars in such disputes.
Assistant Editor David J. Hoff contributed to this report.
Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 22,24