Rewrite of Spec. Ed. Law Passes the House
A Republican-backed effort to create voucher programs for students in special education was shot down last week, as the House passed its revamped version of the nation's most important law for students with disabilities.
The dispute was among several points of partisan contention during the daylong debate April 30 on the House floor, including differences over how to discipline such students and whether to make federal "full funding" for special education mandatory.
But in the end, the bill for reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed 251-171, with 34 Democrats supporting it and seven Republicans opposed. The nearly 28-year-old law, which guarantees a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities, now covers 6.5 million students, or 12 percent of the student population.
The final vote's mostly partisan tint was a marked contrast to what occurred when the House voted on the last major piece of education business to come before it, the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. The May 23, 2001, initial House vote on that measure reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was 384-45 in favor, with roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans voting yes.
"We took a major step forward in the drive to reform education in America by passing this critical legislation that will strengthen our nation's education law for children with special needs," Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement. "The measure approved today provides powerful reforms requested for years by teachers, principals, and local educators."
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is expected to introduce its version of the IDEA by the Memorial Day recess. Its version is on a slower track because the committee is working on a bipartisan bill. But the Senate measure is expected to contain many similar themes.
Perhaps the most closely watched amendment offered during the debate last week in the House was proposed by Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. It would have allowed states to use federal money to set up programs for parents to send their children with disabilities to other public schools or private schools at public expense.
Another by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., would have given publicly funded "certificates," amounting to about $1,400 each, to students with disabilities already enrolled in private schools.
Proponents said school choice programs offer parents of such students more flexibility to seek out services to meet the specialized needs of their children.
Opponents said the programs would divert money that public schools cannot spare. They also said that students accepting vouchers for private schools would give up legal protections.
"You say you want more accountability," said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee. "This would create a wide-open voucher program with no accountability."
The voucher amendments were defeated by a coalition composed of nearly all Democrats and about 20 percent of the Republican members who voted. Republicans hold a 23-seat advantage in the 435-member House.
"I'm disappointed many of my colleagues chose to listen to the propaganda put out by the teachers' union, instead of actually reading the amendment," Mr. DeMint said in a statement after his measure died. "Today's floor vote is a missed opportunity to help children with special needs."
Another measure to expand parents' options likewise did not make it into the final bill. The measure would allow students with disabilities to receive taxpayer money to seek specialized services when their schools are designated as needing improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Key Points Intact
Despite the hit Republicans took on the vouchers programs, keystone points of the bill, originally proposed by Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, remained largely intact. The version passed by the full House closely mirrors goals set by the Bush administration.
The bill's architects said it was designed to reduce paperwork for overburdened special education teachers and administrators; limit the number of students wrongly placed in special education; and allow schools greater power to discipline students with disabilities.
One of the chief concerns of educators is what they characterize as inadequate federal funding.
When the law was first passed in 1975, Congress said that the federal government would channel into special education an amount up to 40 percent of the national average per pupil cost of all students. Many advocates for special education see that level as a promise and refer to it as "full funding." Others see it as a ceiling. The current level of federal subsidy is 18 percent.
The House bill contains a plan to reach "full funding" in seven years. But that's not good enough for many lawmakers, who say that unless the money is shielded from the appropriations process each year, there are no guarantees schools will ever see it.
An amendment offered by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., would make sure 100 percent of yearly increases after the current fiscal year would go directly to local school districts. It passed on a voice vote.
But the only way the measure will do any good, Rep. Woolsey said, is if lawmakers provide large increases in special education funding. Otherwise, she said, "100 percent of nothing is zero."
Federal grants to states for special education have increased by $2.5 billion, or 40 percent, in the past two years, to a current total of $8.9 billion for fiscal 2003.
Earlier on April 30, the IDEA debate got off to a tense start when Democrats learned the House Rules Committee would not allow consideration of an amendment that would have made yearly increases to the IDEA mandatory until "full funding" was reached.
Rep. Woolsey and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D- Md., had previously tried to pass that amendment at the committee level.
"This is the one time in five years we are reauthorizing the law," Mr. Van Hollen said, addressing the House. "This is the time we should do it. Why are they afraid to let us vote on this issue?"
Aside from a lack of full funding, many Democrats said they also would have a hard time supporting the bill because of changes to the disciplinary procedures for special education students.
Under the House bill, school officials would be empowered to suspend or expel students with disabilities for violations of school codes of conduct, rather than only for major infractions involving guns or drugs, as current law stipulates. However, students exiled from campus would still be provided educational services after 10 days of suspension or expulsion.
"This bill falls short of guaranteeing basic rights," said Rep. Miller, the California Democrat. "It falls short on fully funding the act. It is taking us backwards to another time with the discipline provisions."
In other developments, the lawmakers rejected a measure that would have changed the definition of "specific learning disability," a diagnosis that is among the fastest-growing for students identified for special education.
In what proponents said was an effort to limit the number of students wrongly given that label, the measure would have redefined such a disability as a disorder "due to a medically detectable and diagnosable psychological condition relying on physical and scientific evidence."
But opponents argued that the definition would stigmatize students with learning disabilities, and deny services to others who fail to meet the new, stricter standard.
Vol. 22, Issue 34, Pages 26,28