Progress Is Slow-Going in Spec. Ed. Negotiations

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Back-room negotiations to revamp the nation's main special education law continue to inch forward, with House and Senate members still searching for a quick compromise on issues that continue to hamper the process.

The bipartisan working group that is drafting legislation to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has passed its initial one-month limit it imposed for negotiations, but the group has been meeting regularly during the past few weeks. Members of the working group say they are making progress toward a final bill, but are refusing to release details of the legislation. Some observers predict it may take another month or two to finish writing the legislation.

That measure, which members of the working group hope education and disability-rights groups endorse, is intended to have all the kinks worked out so that when it is presented to committees in the House and Senate, it will pass without much debate or many amendments.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House committee that handles education, recently told reporters that it may be close to Memorial Day before legislation is released.

"We want to move as quickly as possible, but we want to make sure all sides are happy," a spokesman for the Education and the Workforce Committee said.

Lawmakers' Concerns

The working group was nearly finished taking testimony from representatives of disability and education groups last week and planned to then begin working on the lawmakers' concerns, according to legislative sources.

Their demands could open some of the issues that sank last year's attempt to revamp the 22-year-old law: the discipline of violent and disruptive disabled students, tactics to cut the costs of schools' attorney fees in court cases, and the revision of the formula for sending federal funds to the states.

A formula passed last year by the House would have changed the current method, which is based on the number of students identified as disabled, to a "placement neutral" system that would grant money based on the overall number of students, factoring in the state's poverty level.

House and Senate aides, led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's chief of staff, have been working to draft legislative language and have periodically invited parents, students, and education and disability-rights advocates to give presentations.

A group of disabled students and adults who had received IDEA services recently spoke of the importance of support services and technology in the classroom and urged the working group not to cut those services.

Most educators continue to be concerned with cutting costs.

One issue is the number of disabled students placed in private schools at public expense. School officials want parents to notify the school of "unilateral placements" before forcing a district to pay for tuition.

The American Association of School Administrators recently wrote a letter to committee members, saying the proposed changes would make IDEA programs more costly than under the current law.

"Our members are most interested in continuing the improvement of services to disabled students within a finance structure that does not force schools to choose between cutting programs for nondisabled students and shortchanging students with disabilities," the letter says.

Advocates want to get a reauthorization through quickly, not only to make needed changes in the law, but also to protect the idea's discretionary programs from losing funding. While the grants to states are permanently authorized, the authorization for discretionary programs such as teacher training and early-childhood services has expired, and those programs could be cut out of the fiscal 1998 budget, some lobbyists fear.

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