GOP Upset Over Possibility of Minimal Spec. Ed. Raise
Congressional Republicans and educators are dismayed over reports that the Department of Education plans to seek a minuscule increase for special education state grants for the next fiscal year.
The department plans to ask only for an additional $3 million--an increase of just a tenth of a percent--for the $3.8 billion program, which sends money to states and local districts to help them pay for special education costs, according to documents obtained by Education Week last week from the House.
The program received a $700 million increase for the current fiscal year, up 23 percent from $3.1 billion in fiscal 1997. An omnibus education bill pushed by Senate Republicans asks for an additional $9.3 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"We're very disappointed," said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "The [Clinton] administration clearly seems more interested in its litany of new programs rather than the ones that we know already work."
President Clinton was expected to release his fiscal 1999 budget plan this week. Last week, Education Department officials declined to confirm whether the House budget documents accurately reflected the administration's pending budget request. The documents, however, were laid out in the format typically used by the department.
Although it's one of the larger appropriations in the education budget, the state-grants program under the IDEA covers only about 10 percent of special education costs for districts.
Many educators list increased special education aid at the top of their wish lists for more federal money.
Overall, the state-grants and national-activities funding categories would increase from $4.81 billion to $4.85 billion--a 0.7 percent climb--according to the documents obtained by Education Week.
"That's absolutely inadequate," argued Sally McConnell, the government-relations director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va. "There's always an increasing need" for special education funds, she added.
Many educators hoped for a large boost in the state grants for the fiscal year that begins next Oct.1 because they fear that new regulations, proposed by the Education Department to clarify last year's amendments to the IDEA, will drive up special education costs further.
Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va., called the reported Clinton administration figure "stupidly, outrageously low."
"To propose regulations that are going to crank up the costs of the program, then not offer to pay for it, is outrageous," Mr. Hunter asserted. He predicted, though, that if congressional Republicans and education lobbyists press for larger increases, they may prevail later in the appropriations process.
The proposed IDEA rules have become a thorn in the side of Republican lawmakers and some education groups, who contend that the Education Department has overstepped its authority and is trying to rewrite the law.
The GOP members urged the Education Department to revise its proposals in a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.
In the Jan. 20 letter, GOP members blasted several provisions of the proposed rules--including those on student discipline--that they say go beyond, and in some cases violate, the intent of the IDEA.
The senators signing the letter were Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi; James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who chairs the Labor and Human Resources Committee; and committee members Daniel R. Coats of Indiana and Bill Frist of Tennessee.
The House members who signed were Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, who heads the Education and the Workforce Committee, and Frank Riggs, the Californian who heads that panel's subcommittee that oversees special education.
The Republicans' letter, which was filed during the department's official comment period on the proposed rules, stops short of threatening to amend the law or veto regulations, as some members had hinted earlier.
"Our next step is to sit down with the department and negotiate the differences," Mr. Diskey said last week. "We don't know when that will happen."
The regulations, which are intended to clarify recent amendments to the IDEA, have come under fire since the Education Department released its discipline proposals in September and other proposed rules in October.
The debate over how to discipline special education students--specifically, when and if they may be suspended or expelled--consumed much of the debate during the three-year reauthorization process that ended when President Clinton signed the reauthorized IDEA last June.1 ("House, Senate Easily Approve Spec. Ed. Bill," May 21, 1997.)
A major sticking point for the regulations involves the so-called "10-day rule."
The department maintains that school districts can only suspend disabled students for 10 days each school year without reviewing the students' placements. Republicans and some education groups, though, say the law is intended to allow administrators to suspend disabled students for up to 10 days at a time with no regard to how many days accumulate in the course of a school year.
Thomas Hehir, the director of the department's office of special education programs, said in an interview that department officials had interpreted the regulations as they read the law, adding that they would carefully consider the comments.
"Our final rules will reflect the statute, and in some areas that's easier than others," he said.
There is no way to tell what might be changed until department officials review the 4,000 written comments received as part of the regulatory process, he added.
B. Joseph Ballard, the assistant executive director for public policy at the Council for Exceptional Children in Reston, Va., supports the department's discipline guidelines.
He said they reflect "the spirit of the law" and provided a good way to prevent the "revolving door" for students with repeated suspensions.
But several other education groups sent the department strongly worded letters protesting disciplinary and other administrative provisions they felt were not in line with the reauthorized IDEA.
The Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association wrote, "We are concerned that the department is forcing this issue to unnecessarily divide general education and special education, as well as to fuel the politicization of the reauthorization."