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Published in Print: July 14, 2004, as Rewrite of Special Education Law Stalls in Congress

Rewrite of Special Education Law Stalls in Congress

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With each day that passes, the chances that Congress will deliver a bill rewriting the nation’s main special education law to President Bush’s desk this year appear to be fading.

Analysts and education lobbyists are growing doubtful that, even with all of the work lawmakers have invested in the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the final hurdles can be overcome. They point mainly to partisan tensions in Congress inflamed by the upcoming elections as the reason.

"They’re just absolutely stuck right now," said Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. "It should be able to move, but I don’t think it’s going to happen before Election Day."

If there’s a possibility a revised special education bill will be enacted, observers say it likely would happen in a lame-duck session after the elections, when Congress is expected to finish its spending legislation.

Both chambers have approved bills to reauthorize the IDEA, which was last updated in 1997. The Senate plan was solidly bipartisan and passed 95-3 in May. The House bill passed in April 2003 by a far slimmer margin, 251-171, with only 34 Democrats voting aye.

The next step is for the House and the Senate to convene a conference committee to hash out differences on issues such as discipline for students with disabilities, funding-authorization levels, and the definition of a "highly qualified" special education teacher.

With the GOP controlling Congress, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, had sought to reach deals on several crucial policy items before agreeing to enter the formal conference-committee process.

But Republicans have been reluctant to make such guarantees.

"There are some differences to be worked out, and the place to do that is in the conference committee," said Gayle Osterberg, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the Senate education committee.

"Chairman [Judd] Gregg is interested in following the usual process that has yielded a successful bipartisan approach," she said, referring to the New Hampshire Republican who leads the committee.

Agreements Sought

Negotiations were ongoing between Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the chamber’s majority and minority leaders, to see if they can strike a deal to proceed, Senate aides said early this month.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Kennedy, said the larger issue is whether Democrats will be treated fairly. He pointed to conferences on other recent bills, such as for prescription-drug coverage under Medicare, that excluded many Democrats.

"Before we allow Republicans to go to conference, we want to form agreements with them," said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Sen. Daschle. "Democrats have to play a role."

The minority leader’s concern, she said, is less about process than results. "It’s what happens behind closed doors," she said. "American families have been hurt in those [Republican-controlled] conferences."

At a June 22 symposium in Washington on the politics of education, Sen. Gregg voiced skepticism about finishing the IDEA and other key education bills this year.

"There’s nothing moving in the Senate, whether it’s higher education, or workforce incentives, or IDEA, or Head Start," he said at the event, which was hosted by the Education Week and the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

"We pass bills out of committee, and even pass them across the floor," Mr. Gregg said, "but we can’t get them to go to conference, because, unfortunately, Senator Daschle’s decided nothing will go to conference."

Ms. Feinberg disputed that charge, saying Democrats have agreed to proceed when a deal was reached to ensure bipartisanship, such as with a recent transportation bill.

‘Draconian’ Measures?

Despite the uncertainty surrounding action on the IDEA, many organizations are working to influence the final bill.

Groups representing several interests at the state level—legislatures, schools chiefs, boards of education, and directors of special education—sent a joint letter to Congress last month outlining concerns on data collection, monitoring and enforcement, teacher quality, and other issues.

For one, they argued that the pending bills don’t take into account state costs for upgrading information systems to meet new data- collection demands, nor do they allow a phase-in period to develop such systems. They urged lawmakers to avoid pacts on key issues before the conference committee convenes.

"Senators should not be bound to support imperfect language by ‘preconference agreements,’ " the groups wrote in the June 6 letter.

David L. Shreve, the education committee director for the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures, pointed to Senate language on monitoring and enforcement as one concern.

The Senate bill would give the federal Department of Education and states greater authority and new tools to monitor and enforce the law using performance data, and it would direct the department and states to apply sanctions to address non-compliance, according to a Senate summary.

"It’s pretty hard for Congress … to force some pretty draconian compliance measures on states when obviously they have not dealt seriously with the resource issue," Mr. Shreve said. "They use some very unflattering language for different levels of noncompliance, culminating in ‘egregiously noncompliant.’ "

Another big issue is language on "highly qualified" special education teachers. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all teachers of the core academic subjects must be "highly qualified," including special education teachers.

"They didn’t really consider the unique circumstances in which special education teachers work," said the NEA’s Ms. Anderson, calling the law too rigid on the issue.

The House bill is silent on the matter. The Senate crafted language to make it easier for special education teachers, who often handle multiple subjects and age groups, to be deemed "highly qualified," though many observers felt it didn’t go far enough.

"Everyone is in agreement that this is an issue that needs to be revisited" in a conference committee, said Deborah A. Ziegler, an associate executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children.

While lawmakers have much work to do on the IDEA, lobbyists and others say the two chambers’ bills are not too far apart.

"There are no insurmountable differences between the House and Senate bills," said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "House Republicans are ready to roll."

Vol. 23, Issue 42, Pages 29,32

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