Lawmakers on the Senate education committee released a proposed bipartisan rewrite of the nation’s main special education law last week that jettisons two controversial measures outlined in the House version of the bill.
What did senators omit from their plan for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act? Discipline language that would put the burden on parents to prove that their children’s disabilities caused them to break school rules; and an extension, with parents’ approval, of the interval between the writing of students’ individualized education plans, or IEPs, from one year to three.
Both of those provisions in the House version of a reauthorized IDEA have come under heavy fire from parents, advocates for special education, and some lawmakers.
The introduction of the Senate committee’s bill differed even in tone from the House version’s March 19 debut. After likewise talking of producing a bipartisan bill, Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee instead wound up releasing their own version.
But on June 12, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the panel’s ranking minority member, sat elbow to elbow as they unveiled their work.
“In the past, IDEA reauthorization has been a divisive and partisan process,” Sen. Gregg said. “Senator Kennedy and I were determined to come together to make this a bipartisan process.”
To carry on in that cooperative spirit, Sens. Gregg and Kennedy said politically sensitive measures such as school choice in special education and a provision of “full funding” for the IDEA would be reserved for Senate floor debate.
At its heart, the Senate bill purports to achieve the same goals as the House version. Among them: reducing paperwork, improving conflict resolution in special education, and lowering the number of students wrongly placed in special education. (“Rewrite of Spec. Ed. Law Passes the House,” May 7, 2003.)
A Different Spin
But the Senate version put a different spin on several important matters.
Discipline of students with disabilities, for example, is one of the most sharply debated issues in the field. The Senate panel’s version would maintain current law by requiring schools to perform reviews of whether students’ disabilities played a role in misbehavior. The House would strip away that requirement, asking schools to perform such reviews only at the request of parents.
Moreover, the House version would allow schools to suspend students with disabilities for up to 45 days for not only the most serious infractions such as bringing a gun to school, or incidents involving drugs, but for any violations of the schools’ codes of conduct. But the Senate version would only add the category of causing “serious bodily injury” to the list of offenses worthy of long-term suspension.
The discipline provisions in the House bill sparked criticism from some lawmakers, parents, and advocacy groups, as well as from President Bush, who said in a written reaction to the bill that students’ disabilities should be a consideration in discipline.
In an effort to reduce paperwork, the House would let parents choose three-year IEPs for their children. But the Senate version makes that same concept into a transitional plan for older students, offering the option of a three-year IEP only to students ages 18 to 21.
While the House version would require special education teachers to be “highly qualified” in the core subjects they teach, the Senate version would not. The Senate bill would require that special education teachers be certified only in special education, which reflects more realistic expectations, Senate aides say.
“Today’s bipartisan proposal represents a real commitment to IDEA,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Chairman Gregg and Ranking Member Kennedy and their colleagues in Congress to reshape and strengthen IDEA.”
Patti Ralabate, the professional associate for special needs for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said after a quick review of the Senate bill that she was pleased about some aspects of the bill, and troubled by others.
“We are disappointed not to see full funding addressed,” said Ms. Ralabate, referring to what many see as a nearly 28-year-old federal promise to give states a subsidy for each special education child equal to 40 percent of the average cost of educating students overall.
“We are happy that the qualifications for special education teachers are more clear,” she said.