Discipline Again To Top Special Ed. Debate

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School districts' power to discipline or expel violent special education students will once again be an issue as Congress begins its second year of trying to rewrite the nation's main special education law.

Sponsors of the bills to extend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have vowed their legislation will be a top priority. The plan they will start with is nearly identical to the one that died when Congress adjourned last year.

The simple act of putting the House bill in the hopper drew both praise and harsh criticism from interest groups and officials eager for another opportunity to revamp and clarify a 22-year-old law that many observers feel has become mired in bureaucracy and court fights.

The Senate was scheduled to start hearings on its bill Jan. 29, picking up where last year's discussions ended. The bill has a new sponsor, Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., who will hold hearings before the full Labor and Human Resources Committee, which he chairs.

"It will be a common starting point for everyone," a committee spokesman said. "It also reflects that a lot of work was done on it last year."

The committee expects a lot more work on the bill this year, he added.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., has already proposed boosting the federal government's share of the tab for special education by $10 billion over the next seven years. He proposed similar language during last year's IDEA debates.

Hungry for long-anticipated changes and still reeling from the furor over last year's failed legislation, interest groups on all sides are predicting quicker but intense negotiations on Capitol Hill. And in fact, tensions have already started to rise.

Opening Fireworks

The bills filed in the Senate and House reopened unhealed wounds from the last Congress, when disability-rights advocates went head to head with lawmakers and some educators over districts' right to expel students with disabilities who commit violent crimes.

Last year's bills would have ended the federal guarantee of an education for every disabled child. They each contained provisions that would have allowed states and districts to end educational services to disabled students who brought drugs or weapons to school, provided the offenses were not related to the students' disabilities.

That wording became the explosive issue that ultimately helped sink the bills.

As a result, House members had planned to introduce legislation this year that did not contain any language about terminating services, leaving that decision to states and localities.

But a letter from several disability groups protesting other provisions in the bill and asking lawmakers to hold off this year's debate infuriated Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., and Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who chose instead to reintroduce last year's bill--expulsion language and all.

"Because the disability community has apparently decided against supporting such a process of open discussion, the co-sponsors of this bill and I have chosen to introduce a bill which includes all provisions of the bill which has received bipartisan support in the House," Rep. Riggs said. "That bill included provisions on the cessation of educational services."

Members of the advocacy groups--many of whom recall the era before Congress adopted the 1975 special education law, when schools routinely denied admission to disabled children--stood by their strategy.

"We wanted to ensure the legislation maintained this important civil rights component" of a free and appropriate education for all disabled children, said Kevin Dwyer, the associate executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. "Our intent was not to insult Mr. Goodling."

Funding Formula

But discipline should not be as pressing a concern this time, said Judith Heumann, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

"I hope the cessation discussion will not receive the level of discussion it did in the past," Ms. Heumann said. It is crucial, she said, that the bills' sponsors work together with assorted special education groups, some of which have clashing interests.

"Leadership is going to be the name of the game," she said.

The National School Boards Association, however, is holding tight to its support of last year's discipline provisions.

"Allowing states and localities to treat all students equally is an important issue, but it also needs to be kept in perspective," said an NSBA official who asked not to be named. Other issues that need to be addressed, he added, include limiting parents' rights to collect legal fees in court cases and requiring states to offer mediation as an alternative to court.

Many in Congress would like to pass those kinds of changes to stem skyrocketing special education costs in districts where budgets have already been pinched by states and pressured by increasing enrollments.

The House and Senate remain at odds over the federal law's formula for dividing special education funds. Both chambers will start the year with the competing plans carried over from last fall.

Mr. Goodling touted the House bill as an end to unneeded paperwork and said the plan would lead to better student evaluations, teacher training, and parent involvement. For example, the bill makes the student evaluations more flexible. Parents would have greater access to children's records and a greater say in placements.

"The IDEA Improvement Act of 1997 focuses the act on children's education instead of process and bureaucracy, gives parents a greater input in determining the best education for their child, and gives teachers the tools they need to teach all children well," Mr. Goodling said.

Still, Mr. Dwyer worries some children may be misdiagnosed.

"There is an anxiousness to make sure the law isn't abused, but in the process of doing that [the House committee has] gone too far and forgotten about some of our most vulnerable disabled people," Mr. Dwyer said.

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