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Presidential Commission Urges Federal Vouchers For Spec. Ed. Students

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A presidential commission has recommended allowing parents to use federal special education dollars to send their children with disabilities to private schools.

The proposal, coming on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the use of publicly financed vouchers at religious schools, potentially sets the stage for school choice programs to play an important role in the education of the nation's special education students. Or, at the least, to have a role in the debate.

In a report made public July 9, the President's Commission on Special Education says such vouchers should be made available to parents, especially if their children are not making progress toward their educational goals for three years running.

The commission didn't offer details on how the programs should be set up. But special education experts said the closest parallel to what the commission has in mind is Florida's 2-year-old voucher program for special education students.

Under Florida's McKay scholarship program for students with disabilities, parents can receive vouchers regardless of how their children's schools perform in the eyes of the state. Parents of a child with disabilities who believe that the school is not meeting his or her needs are eligible to receive vouchers worth either what the school district pays in annual costs for that child or the price of tuition to a private school, whichever is less. The average value of the Florida vouchers for the 4,000 or so students in the program last year was around $6,000. Officials expect almost 5,700 students to use the vouchers in the coming year. ("Florida's 'Other' Voucher Program Taking Off," Aug. 8, 2001.)

The commission, appointed by President Bush, said that under its proposal—subject to approval by Congress and a presidential signature—states could create such programs, but with a key difference: The vouchers would come from federal funds. In general, the programs would follow provisions parallel to the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, which allows parents the option of choosing another public school if their child's assigned public school has failed two years in a row and of getting supplemental services for their child at public cost if the school fails three years in a row.

But the special education program would differ because it would allow vouchers to be used at private schools, the commission's chairman, former Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, said at a July 10 hearing before the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The money for the vouchers, in the commission's conception, would come from federal grants for special education that currently go to states and then on to school districts under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

President Bush had originally proposed that the No Child Left Behind Act include federal vouchers. But he dropped that idea quickly in 2001 after beginning negotiations with congressional Democrats. And in late June of this year, after the Supreme Court issued its voucher ruling, some members of Congress immediately made it clear that vouchers of any stripe would be an "over my dead body" proposition.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said at the hearing that he had concerns that private schools do not have the same level of accountability for how they educate special education students. He said he was worried that parents, as they must do under the Florida program, might be forced to waive their rights under the federal special education law when they send students there.

But Todd Jones, the executive director of the commission, said that civil rights and due process afforded to parents by law would be transferable to private schools. Mr. Jones said under the voucher program, as envisioned by the commission at least, the private schools would be subject to accountability just as public schools would because they would be receiving federal special education money.

Still, some advocates said that a voucher program for special education would drain precious federal aids from public schools that are already stretched thin. Public schools need all the money they can get to hire qualified special education teachers and provide other help to students, they said.

"A voucher recommendation would drain scarce resources away from public schools without mandating accountability of the funds and guaranteed educational services," Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va., said in a statement. "At a time when local, state, and federal governments are in agreement that school systems must be held accountable for the educational services they provide, creating a voucher program with no guarantee of mandated educational services seems like a colossal waste of taxpayer money."

Democrats Unimpressed

The commission's report, which also contained other recommendations regarding federal funding, was the subject of a July 9 hearing as well before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The 88-page report was transmitted to the president by a July 1 deadline, but was not made public until this week.

President Bush appointed the 16-member commission in October, charging them with coming up with recommendations on improving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation's main special education law. The 1975 law, which guarantees a "free, appropriate public education" for students with disabilities, is up for reauthorization this year.

Lawmakers had said they would not go forward with bills reauthorizing the IDEA until the commission issued its report.

At the hearings, some Democrats panned the commission's handiwork.

"The report is thin and vague in providing the statement about what should be done," Rep. Miller said. "It doesn't provide a blueprint."

Members of the committees criticized the commission for omitting some issues entirely, such as the difficulty schools have collecting Medicaid reimbursement for service provided to eligible students.

Mr. Branstad, a Republican, said the commission did not have the time to delve into such a complex issue. The report simply says that better coordination of services is needed with Medicaid. Lawmakers also criticized the commission for making no mention of how to handle discipline for special education students, another hot issue in the field of special education.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate education committee, asked the commission at the July 9 hearing to look into the issue of Medicaid reimbursement. Mr. Branstad said the panel would do so.

Several Democrats and special education advocates also took issue with the commission's stance against what is known as "full federal funding" for the IDEA. When the law was passed in 1975, Congress set a goal of providing supplemental federal special education funding for up to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure. Since the federal special education subsidy stands at around 15 percent, some advocates see the allocations as a failure to meet a promise on funding.

The 40 percent figure was an arbitrary amount, not connected to the actual amount spent on special education, said Todd Jones, the executive director of the presidential commission. The commission's recommendation, Mr. Jones said, is that federal lawmakers determine how much money states really need to educate students with disabilities.

The commission did not recommend making the IDEA an entitlement program, a proposal that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, pushed unsuccessfully last year. Under that proposal, special education funding levels would be triggered by a set formula, rather than being subject to congressional approval each year.

But Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, applauded the commission for rejecting the notion of making special education an entitlement. "There are major problems in the special education system today that money alone won't fix for teachers, parents, and children with special needs," Rep. Boehner said at the July 10 hearing. "… Turning special education into a new federally administered entitlement spending program would be a disaster for anyone hoping to see these disturbing problems corrected."

Other Suggestions

The report also makes these recommendations:

  • Schools should eliminate the use of IQ tests for screening children for disabilities other than mental retardation.
  • The IDEA should allow and encourage states and school districts to set aside "rainy day" funds to account for the sometimes budget-busting impact of students with severe disabilities.
  • The federal Department of Education should create a unified system of services for children with disabilities from their birth to age 21, and simplify individualized education plans-—the written blueprints that the IDEA requires for each student with a disability—to focus on substantive outcomes.
  • Secretary of Education Rod Paige should provide recommendations to Congress within three months on how the Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services can better use its staff and resources to implement the federal special education law.

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