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Published in Print: February 20, 2002, as Forecast for IDEA Restructuring: Not This Year

Forecast for IDEA Restructuring: Not This Year

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An overhaul of the nation's guiding special education law, the next major education item on Congress' to-do list, will almost certainly fall into 2003, a key congressional aide said last week.

However, Sally Lovejoy, the education policy director for the Republican majority on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the first round in the fight over making "full funding" for special education an entitlement program, rather than part of the discretionary budget, is right on the horizon.

The House will look at the issue of whether to give states "full funding"—a special education subsidy of up to 40 percent of the average per-pupil cost—when the annual process of drawing up a budget resolution begins in March, Ms. Lovejoy told the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, an ad hoc panel of lawmakers interested in special education. The budget resolution sets non-binding, but influential, spending caps for the official appropriations process later in the year.

But she told the caucus that the House won't take up the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act until midsummer, shortly before the monthlong August recess. With an abbreviated legislative year because of the upcoming November elections, it will be almost impossible to complete the work on reauthorizing the IDEA, Ms. Lovejoy said.

Even should the House manage to pass the IDEA reauthorization before the end of the year, without Senate passage and a signature by the president before the end of the year, a new bill would have to be reintroduced to the new Congress in January.

"So, yes, we'd have to start from scratch again in January 2003," said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House education committee. "It isn't a desirable situation."

Fasten Your Seat Belts

At last week's session of the congressional disabilities caucus, Ms. Lovejoy laid out the likely legislative schedule on the House side for reauthorizing the IDEA, which guarantees the 6 million American children with disabilities a "free and appropriate" education.

"It has a lot of road bumps ahead," Ms. Lovejoy said. "There are people who don't want any changes in the law, and people who want sweeping changes."

She said the House education committee will try to complete its version of the bill to present to the full House this summer, after the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education issues its recommendations on how to improve special education in a report due for release on July 1. Ms. Lovejoy said she hopes the House would pass its version sometime in the fall.

"The committee wouldn't do anything that would get out ahead of the president's commission," Ms. Lovejoy said. "We want to wait for their report. But that doesn't mean we won't hold hearings and start laying the groundwork for our bill."

The first hearing on the House side will be scheduled for sometime in mid-March, she said.

At this point, she said, the GOP majority on the committee opposes making special education an entitlement program, when it comes time to draw up the budget resolution next month. Some members of Congress last year pushed to move special education funding from the discretionary side of the federal budget, where Congress decides annually how much to allot to it, to the so-called mandatory budget. Mandatory programs are, in legislative parlance, entitlements.

Dan Fuller, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, said he foresees a long road ahead for the IDEA reauthorization.

"This legislation is going to be pretty contentious, with lengthy debates in the House and Senate," Mr. Fuller said. "I do not believe they can seriously do anything with IDEA until next year."

Ms. Lovejoy also gave the caucus the first glimpse at issues that the House education committee will take up when it looks at revamping special education. Among those: school choice for children with disabilities.

She said the committee would look at a special education voucher program in Florida supported by the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

In Florida, parents can receive vouchers regardless of how their children's schools perform in the eyes of the state. A parent who believes that a school is not meeting the needs of his or her child with disabilities is eligible to receive a voucher that is worth either what the school district pays in annual costs for that child or the price of tuition to a private school, whichever is cheaper.

"Choice was a huge issue in HR 1 [the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act]," Ms. Lovejoy said. "We want to look at options for special education."

Vol. 21, Issue 23, Pages 20,22

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