Panels To Consider Compromise Spec. Ed. Bill This Week

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After more than two months of work behind closed doors, House and Senate negotiators emerged last week with their legislative plan for reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

After a nearly two-year process filled with dramatic proposals to restructure the law, a summary shows the plan is not nearly as far-reaching as it might have been. Many of the proposals that sank last year's reauthorization are either watered down or removed entirely.

Education committees in both chambers plan to mark up a compromise bill this week. Staff members expect the process to go smoothly, given the time and effort lawmakers, aides, and education and disability-rights advocates invested in the effort.

Trimming bureaucracy and controlling costs for schools were two priorities for the working group, Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who heads the House subcommittee that handles special education, told reporters last week.

"I hope the reform legislation will help children by focusing more on their education rather than bureaucracy," Mr. Riggs said.

Discipline Compromise

Lawmakers skirted the issue of how to discipline dangerous disabled students, upholding the IDEA's guarantee of a free, appropriate education for all students with disabilities.

The compromise outlined last week would give administrators broader authority to remove dangerous disabled students from the classroom for up to 10 days. Students could also be sent to an alternative placement for up to 45 days for crimes involving weapons or drugs.

Lawmakers included provisions that school administrators had begged for to relieve the growing threat of parent lawsuits.

States would be required to set up voluntary mediation systems to settle disputes between parents and school officials over issues such as placement decisions involving children with disabilities. If a school were found at fault in a hearing, the parent could not be awarded lawyer's fees for time spent in mediation or meetings to discuss an individualized education program, unless the hearing had been ordered by a hearing officer or judge.

State Funding Formula

The working group revamped the funding formula for state grants, but congressional appropriators will have to decide when the new plan should kick in.

The proposed formula would base state grants on a method that takes the total number of children in a state and factors in the state's poverty level. The current formula would remain in place until federal appropriations reached about $4.9 billion, after which the new formula would be implemented for all new aid above the prior year's appropriation. Federal special education funding for fiscal 1997 totaled $3.1 billion.

The plan sidesteps a snag that derailed last year's attempts in the House to change the formula. After critics charged that states overidentified the number of disabled children to collect more federal aid, lawmakers from states with high proportions of disabled students that would have lost money vigorously fought the change.

The compromise bill also cuts the amount states are allowed to retain for statewide programs and administration, capping funds at 1997 levels with adjustments for inflation.

The change angered the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, which maintains that state-level programs are more efficient and save money for local districts.

Assessment, Policy Letters

States also would be required to include disabled students in academic assessments, with any needed accommodations, and would be required to report their results. States would have to create alternative assessments for students unable to participate in the regular tests. States would also have to establish goals and develop performance indicators for disabled students.

The bill also would curtail the Department of Education's use of policy letters, in which the department answers specific questions about administering the idea. Letters could not be used to set policies, as some critics have charged they do. Federal officials would have to state that their interpretations are not legally binding. If a policy or change originated in a policy letter, the letter would have to be widely disseminated.

The bill also would give states more discretion over the special education services that must be provided to incarcerated youths and adults. California is now fighting federal threats to withhold all IDEA money over its refusal to provide special education services to youths and adults age 21 and younger in prison for violent crimes. ("Issue of Spec. Ed. in Prisons Pits Calif., ED" April 30, 1997.)

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