IDEA Rules May Not Head Off Amendments
The long-awaited final rules implementing the current version of the nation's main special education law have brought some relief to school officials and advocacy groups, but Republicans have yet to rule out the possibility of amending the law.
New regulations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, released March 12, will give schools more leeway in educating students with disabilities, representatives of several education groups agreed last week as they read over the 200-page document.
"They were a vast improvement over the proposed regulations," said Diane Schust, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the 2.4 million member teachers' union.
The rules, which address changes made to the IDEA in 1997, were released nearly a year past the Department of Education's original deadline for issuing them. They include several major changes from the department's original proposed regulations, which came out in the fall of 1997. ("Report Charts Rise in Spec. Ed. Enrollment," March 17, 1999.)
Unlike the proposal, the final rules allowed administrators to suspend disabled students for more than 10 days, total, in a school year and gave school officials details on regular education teachers' roles in creating students' individualized education plans.
"We're glad to receive them, even though they're quite lengthy," said Linda Rhen, the executive director of the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit, a regional education agency in Pennsylvania. Her office was beginning to review the regulations last week.
Judith E. Heumann, the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, and Thomas Hehir, the director of the office of special education programs, hosted a teleconference at Gallaudet University in Washington last week to take questions from school officials and disability-rights activists on the new rules.
Addressing the especially contentious issue of discipline, the two officials urged administrators to use Education Department research on behavioral-intervention strategies rather than immediately suspending a disruptive child with disabilities.
"Expulsions and exclusions from school don't take any of us very far," Ms. Heumann said. "Often, they exacerbate the problem and lead to greater problems in coming years."
In Congress, several Republicans want to amend the IDEA to give administrators more power to suspend and expel violent disabled students, in essence removing certain restrictions mandated by the law. School leaders have complained that they cannot punish special education students nearly as effectively as nondisabled students for the same violations because of limits on changing the education plan for a student with disabilities.
Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the committee's staff would be reviewing the document and talking to disability and education groups over the next few weeks before deciding whether to take any action. "We thought it best we first talk to the people who have to deal directly with the regs," he said.
Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said he expected the group's members to be generally pleased with the new regulations. He added, however, that they also were likely to ask for new legislative language to broaden administrators' abilities to remove disabled students from the classroom.
But part of the problem, Ms. Schust said, is that some administrators don't fully understand the law's provisions and their rights when it comes to disciplining children in special education programs.
"The problem is, the principals are saying, 'It's an IDEA student, and we can't do anything about it,' " she said.
Ms. Heumann said in the teleconference that the Education Department would be watching schools closely to ensure that officials comply with the law's discipline requirements, as well as new mandates to include disabled students in the general education curriculum and state and local assessments to the maximum extent possible.
"We intend to hold administrators accountable to ensure students receive the educational services they need and do not fall behind," she said.
The NEA, meanwhile, is concerned that such talk will translate into even more paperwork related to special education students, which map out the educational services each child needs, Ms. Schust said.
"States and school districts are free to add on paperwork," and many do because they worry that they need additional documentation to prove compliance with the law, she added. "Some of our members have had IEPs go from three to 29 pages."
Vol. 18, Issue 28, Pages 20,22