Voucher Proposal Throws New Wrench Into IDEA Overhaul

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The House and Senate education committees are gearing up to introduce their versions of the bills revising the main federal special education law next month.

Reauthorizing the Idea

Expect conflict. Just don't expect a final bill in 2002.

Now that congressional hearings on special education have wrapped up, and lawmakers have reviewed a report from a presidential commission studying special education, members of Congress have a political green light to make their own proposals. Federal legislators had said they would not go forward with bills reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act until the commission issued its report.

That report, released July 9, set off a new round of Capitol Hill buzz over the "V- word."

The question is whether to use federal dollars to pay for special education vouchers, a suggestion contained in the report. House and Senate leaders, as on so many issues in the past, are at odds over vouchers of any stripe. The suggestion for using them in the special education realm did not bring the two chambers together.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee's version of the IDEA will likely include a measure encouraging states to devise voucher programs for special education students, aides to the Republican-controlled committee said. But there is little chance that the bill offered by the Democratic-controlled Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will include the concept, Senate sources said.

"There's been interest on the committee in the special education vouchers issue, but not in a positive sense," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, the chairman of the Senate committee. "It won't be in the bill if it's a bipartisan bill."

The report from the President's Commission on Special Education came on the heels of a June 27 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding publicly financed tuition vouchers at religious schools. The commission report says such vouchers should be made available to parents of special education students, especially if their children are not making progress toward their educational goals for three years running.

The commission didn't offer details on how such programs should be set up. But special education experts said the closest parallel to what the commission has in mind is Florida's 2- year-old voucher program for special education students.

"We believe strongly that parents with children with special needs should have as many options as we can make available to them," said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House education committee. "What the state of Florida has been doing is very much a pioneering effort. At a minimum, we need to ensure that the federal government is not, whether through legislation or regulation, discouraging other states from following Florida's lead."

Under Florida's McKay scholarship program for students with disabilities, parents can receive vouchers regardless of how their children's schools perform in the eyes of the state. Parents of a child with disabilities who believe that the school is not meeting his or her needs are eligible to receive vouchers worth either what the school district pays in annual costs for that child or the price of tuition to a private school, whichever is less.

The average value of the Florida vouchers for the 4,000 or so students in the program last year was around $6,000. Officials expect almost 5,700 students to use the vouchers this coming school year. ("Florida's 'Other' Voucher Program Taking Off," Aug. 8, 2001.)

The presidential commission said that under its proposal, states would create such programs, but with a key difference: The vouchers would come from federal funds.

Parallel to Federal Act

In general, the programs would follow provisions parallel to those in the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, which allows parents to choose another public school if their child's assigned public school has failed two years in a row, and of getting supplemental services for their child at public cost if the school fails three years in a row.

But the special education program would differ because it would allow vouchers to be used at private schools, the commission's chairman, former Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, a Republican, said at a July 10 hearing before the House education committee. The money for the vouchers, in the commission's conception, would come from federal grants for special education that now go to states and then on to school districts under the IDEA.

Mr. Schnittger and Mr. Manley refused to discuss specifics about what would be included in the committees' bills when they surface after Congress' August recess. But they said themes have emerged on both sides of the aisle indicating the focus of the bills.

"When it comes to the two most important issues to improving special education, they are paperwork reduction for teachers and improving results for children," Mr. Schnittger said. "Legislation by Republicans is sure to focus on both of those goals."

Meanwhile, the Senate committee will focus on compliance and enforcement of the law, Mr. Manley said.

"We are also concerned that children who need early intervention receive it, and about getting highly qualified teachers," Mr. Manley said.

No Crystal Ball

In addition to vouchers, so-called full funding of special education remains a divisive issue. Several Democrats and special education advocates took issue with the commission's stance against what is known as full federal funding for the IDEA.

When the special education law was first passed in 1975, Congress set a goal of providing supplemental federal special education funding for up to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure for all K-12 education. Because the federal special education subsidy stands instead at around 15 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure, some advocates see the allocation as a failure to meet a promise on funding.

The federal government is spending $8.7 billion in fiscal year 2002, $7.5 billion of that in direct grants to states.

The 40 percent figure was an arbitrary amount, not connected to the actual amount spent on special education, said Todd Jones, the executive director of the presidential commission. The commission's recommendation, Mr. Jones said, is that federal lawmakers determine how much money states really need to educate students with disabilities.

The commission did not recommend making the IDEA an entitlement program, a proposal that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, pushed unsuccessfully last year. Under that proposal, special education funding levels would be triggered by a set formula, rather than being subject to congressional approval each year.

Mr. Manley said the issue of full funding would likely come up on the floor of Congress, not in the Senate committee's bill. Mr. Schnittger said the House committee wants to reform special education before making the IDEA an entitlement program.

But with the fundamental differences between the two houses, and Congress' working days foreshortened this fall because of the November elections, finishing work on the bills after they are introduced may prove impossible. Some lawmakers are already taking about "next year's" reauthorization of the IDEA. Neither side promises it can wrap up the process this year, though both say they aim to try.

"We feel we have an obligation to do all we can to reauthorize IDEA," Mr. Schnittger said. "No one has a crystal ball."

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 32

Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as Voucher Proposal Throws New Wrench Into IDEA Overhaul
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