Feds' Crackdown on Pa. May Be Sign of Things To Come

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With a crackdown on one state, the Department of Education appears to be keeping its promise to toughen oversight of the state role in enforcing federal special education law.

The department's office of special education programs recently warned Pennsylvania education officials that they must do more to penalize school districts that do not fully comply with the nation's main special education law or risk losing federal aid.

Thomas Hehir, the director of the OSEP, has repeatedly told state special education directors that the revised Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, signed into law in June 1997, mandates stepped-up monitoring efforts by states. ("IDEA Rules Are Hot Topic at State Spec. Ed. Directors' Meeting," Nov. 26, 1997.)

This summer, Pennsylvania became only the fourth state to have conditions attached to its IDEA grant in the law's 23-year history, and the first with conditions related to special education monitoring, according to the Education Department.

In an interview, Mr. Hehir warned that more special conditions may be on the way for other states. "Will this happen in other states? I believe it will," he said. "We have had some states we've been really concerned about."

The "IDEA is not a self-implementing law," he added.

Under the IDEA, states pass federal dollars to districts while also ensuring that the districts meet the law's requirements. Pennsylvania received about $139.8 million in IDEA grant money this fiscal year, based on preliminary enrollment figures.

Federal officials have ordered the state education department to send quarterly reports to Washington detailing the steps it has taken to ensure that the 8,500-student Harrisburg district and any other delinquent districts are in compliance with the IDEA.

The Harrisburg district was specifically cited in the letter, but others in Pennsylvania also may not be fully complying with the IDEA, Mr. Hehir said.

William Penn, Pennsylvania's special education director, said he was well aware of the problems in Harrisburg, the state capital, and that the state has been working diligently with the district.

He said the urban district has had numerous systemic problems. First, turnover in its administration has been high: Four people have held the title of special education director in the past three years, and earlier this year the district superintendent was dismissed by the school board. The district has also suffered from a shortage of qualified special education teachers, and many students have not received speech-language therapy or had access to extended-year programs ordered by their individualized education plans, Mr. Penn said.

Mr. Penn added, though, that he was "really optimistic" that the district would fix its problems. A new superintendent appointed this summer, Lucian Yates, has made improving the system a top priority. Mr. Yates could not be reached for comment last week.

Concerned Republicans

Martha Fields, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in Alexandria, Va., said the OSEP has consistently promised better, more outcome-based monitoring for the past two years. She expects more states to feel the effects of that promise.

"What we're seeing in Pennsylvania is one of the early indicators of sanctions being applied," she said. "We're seeing the fulfillment of that direction [the OSEP] set."

But four Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania have written to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley asking him to reconsider the sanctions.

"We strongly urge you to review the appropriateness of the department's actions and to consider a more constructive approach to ensuring compliance with the IDEA in Pennsylvania," wrote Rep. Bill Goodling, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. George W. Gekas, and Sens. Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate panel on K-12 funding, and Rick Santorum. "We fail to see how taking this punitive action will improve the current situation in Harrisburg," the Sept. 2 letter said.

The Education Department is preparing a response, but Mr. Hehir declined to comment on it.

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Page 22

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Feds' Crackdown on Pa. May Be Sign of Things To Come
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