Clinton Proposal Seeks Higher Standards for Spec.-Ed. Students

By Lynn Schnaiberg & Robert C. Johnston — July 12, 1995 5 min read


Students with disabilities would be held to higher standards and the way students are targeted for special education would change under the Clinton Administration’s proposal for amending the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Education officials hope that the plan--which they say parallels state reform efforts--will guide debate this summer as Congress begins work on reauthorizing the 1975 law.

“This is a serious and thoughtful proposal that should be taken seriously,” said Patricia Morrissee, the staff director of the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy.

The panel, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on discipline issues this week, is expected to produce a bill by late summer. Its House counterpart, which has held several hearings over the past few months, is expected to have a bill ready this month.

At a news briefing on June 29, the day the package was sent to Congress, education officials praised the I.D.E.A. for giving millions of students with disabilities access to schools from which they were once excluded. Now, they said, the focus must shift to student achievement.

The landmark law requires schools to provide “a free and appropriate education” to disabled students. States received $2.3 billion under the I.D.E.A.'s various grant programs in fiscal 1995 to aid about 5.5 million students ages 3 through 21.

Raising Expectations

“We all have to feel good that the last 20 years have had positive results,” said Judith E. Heumann, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. “But we’ve had expectations that were too low.”

Under the department’s proposal, schools would have to insure that the “individualized education plans” required for disabled students allow them increasing exposure to the general curriculum.

“The purpose is to give kids access to quality education, not just special education,” said Thomas Hehir, the department’s director of special-education programs.

Schools would also have to set academic goals, chart progress, and update parents on how their children are doing. The plan would also mandate disabled students’ inclusion in state and district assessments.

And it would also eliminate a requirement that schools document the time a special-education teacher spends with nondisabled children, which has discouraged schools from placing children with disabilities in regular classrooms.

At a June 20 hearing, Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities subcommittee with jurisdiction over the I.D.E.A., said the Administration plan addresses many of the issues he views as priorities.

He said he agrees that the law should emphasize academic results, link special education to the regular curriculum, and reduce costly litigation by encouraging mediation--which the department would require states to offer to parents and school officials who disagree on how to educate a student.

The Bottom Line

But the Administration’s proposals to alter the program’s funding formula and eligibility rules--as well as its discipline plan--are likely to generate controversy.

Under the department’s plan, states would no longer have to classify children as fitting into one of 13 categories of disability in order to qualify them for I.D.E.A. services.

Instead, officials would be guided by a more general definition of disability in making eligibility decisions. The intent is to move away from labeling children, federal officials say.

To reduce paperwork, a requirement that an expert confirm a child’s disability every three years would be eliminated.

These ideas are tied to a new funding-allocation method that would distribute aid based on states’ school-age population rather than a count of eligible students. Education officials say such an approach would remove a financial incentive to place students in special education as well as discourage the labeling of students.

To avoid major dislocation--and diminish opposition from states that would be financial losers under the proposal--the department would guarantee states at least as much funding as they received in fiscal 1995.

While they support the idea of de-emphasizing the labeling of children, some special-education advocates fear that the change could increase the number of children eligible for services at a time when states and districts are strained to meet the present demand.

“We are very worried about anything that would loosen up the definitive nature of the population,” said Joe Ballard, the director of government relations for the Council for Exceptional Children.

“Our membership is not in agreement on this issue,” said Myrna R. Mandlawitz, a special assistant for government relations at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “It’s a situation where there would be winners and losers.”

Discipline Rules

On the thorny issue of discipline, the plan would expand a law that allows schools to move a child to an alternative educational setting for 45 days to apply to children who bring other weapons, rather than just guns, to school. And schools would be able to take the faster route of going to a hearing officer, instead of to court, for rulings on whether a child can be taken out of a classroom over parental protests.

“I suspect that the best proposal may not be entirely satisfactory to school officials or the disability community,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at the June 20 hearing.

Groups such as the Council for Exceptional Children and N.A.S.D.S.E. generally back the proposal. But some school groups say it does not go far enough--and many Republicans on Capitol Hill agree with them.

“The Administration bill does not allow school officials on their own authority to remove a student who has violently assaulted a student or teacher,” said William Bruno, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.

School officials argue that disciplinary exceptions for disabled students put schools at risk of being sued by parents worried about their children’s safety. The issue became a hot topic last year in the wake of a spate of news reports about school violence. (See Education Week, 11/30/94.)

The Administration proposal would also:

  • Encourage states to serve more infant and toddlers at risk of developmental delays by clarifying that such a commitment would not obligate states to provide at-risk children with the full array of services supported under the I.D.E.A. program for young disabled children.
  • Replace 14 small programs with five broad funding authorities that cover statewide academic improvement, teacher training, research, parent training, and technology.

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 1995 edition of Education Week as Clinton Proposal Seeks Higher Standards for Spec.-Ed. Students