Presidential Candidates Focus On Spec. Ed.
When Al Gore and Jesse Ventura visited schools together late last month, it wasn't just the unlikely pairing of the earnest vice president and the flamboyant Minnesota governor that stood out. It was also the issue that united them that made news.
The presumptive Democratic nominee for president and the Independent governor appeared together to promote federal special education spending, an unglamorous topic that has come to the forefront of candidates' education platforms this year.
Both Mr. Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican nominee, are pushing for an increased federal contribution under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the quarter- century-old law that guarantees students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education. They are also taking the special education cause further than previous presidential candidates have done.
This year, the two leading candidates are talking beyond simply increasing funding to advocating the creation of better early-intervention and teaching strategies in special education.
Not long before Mr. Gore's visit with Gov. Ventura, Mr. Bush released a multi-pronged plan last month to not only increase funding for the IDEA, but also direct other federal aid and programs toward helping students with disabilities.
Increasing special education funding has been a top education priority of the GOP-controlled Congress for the past four years, and more congressional candidates are using the issue in their campaigns—to the delight of many education groups. The attention given special education in the presidential race takes the issue up another notch.
"I'm tickled," said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. "People have mentioned it in the past, but just as a passing thing."
Both Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore have called for dramatic increases for IDEA state grants, on top of large spending hikes the $5.75 billion program has seen in recent years.
Bush Research Plans
Most lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to see the federal government eventually chip in 40 percent of states' extra costs for educating students with disabilities, the figure set when the IDEA was originally passed in 1975. Currently, the federal government picks up only about 12 percent of the tab.
In addition, Mr. Bush has called for overhauling the Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitative Research to better coordinate its research and disseminate information on technologies for people with disabilities. He wants to triple funding for the institute's Rehabilitative Engineering Research Systems, from $11 million to $33 million a year, to help advance research on "assistive" technologies for the disabled. He also advocates funding for hiring staff members to help coordinate projects between federal agencies and help businesses and others gain access to research.
Under the IDEA, Mr. Bush wants to incorporate strategies used in Title I and reading interventions. He has also proposed a new $5 billion, five- year incentive fund for states to help devise strategies to teach students to read by the 3rd grade, an early-intervention strategy that he believes will keep some students from needing special education.
In a speech to disability- rights advocates on June 15, Mr. Bush said that education is the key to living independently. He promised to focus on raising the high school graduation rate for students in special education and helping such students gain access to higher education or job training.
"This is a bold, far-reaching proposal to help Americans with disabilities," said Scott McClellen, a spokesman for the Bush campaign.
Gore Trust Fund
Mr. Gore, meanwhile, says that as part of his plan to create an "Education Reform Trust Fund," he intends, if elected, to propose the largest increase ever in IDEA funding in his first budget. His three-year plan would increase the $5.75 billion state grant program by $1.5 billion the first year, then follow up with unspecified large increases for the next two years, according to his campaign. Using part of the anticipated federal budget surplus, the $115 billion trust fund would also include programs for universal preschool, teacher recruitment and pay hikes, and after-school activities.
Mr. Gore, who has said special education should be a nonpartisan issue, first called for increasing IDEA funding during this year's New Hampshire Democratic primary. In recent years, though, the Clinton administration has riled some education advocates by proposing only small increases for IDEA state grants, choosing to direct more money toward new initiatives such as class-size reduction.
"We're very happy and hope [the vice president] maintains that stance," Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, a special education advocacy group in Reston, Va., said of Mr. Gore's plan.
Mr. Gore's plan also would set up or expand "funding pools," managed by states, to help districts defray costs of extraordinarily expensive individualized education plans in public schools; create an early-identification and early-intervention fund to help identify and treat at-risk children in preschool or the early grades; and support training in technology and special education for general education teachers to enable them to work better with the special education students.
Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Gore campaign, said Mr. Gore has heard about the need to hike special education funding during his daylong visits to schools on the campaign trail. "He wanted to make a special commitment to special education," Mr. Cabrera said. "It's something he feels very strongly about."
Vol. 19, Issue 42, Pages 34-35