The push for federally financed special education vouchers gained a gust of momentum from the midterm elections that put Republicans in control of both houses of Congress.
The Republican leaders on the education committees in the House and the Senate, who are gearing up to reauthorize the main federal law on special education— the next big school bill on the congressional table—have both said they favor the idea of school choice programs for students with disabilities.
With the turnover in control of the Senate generated by the election results, one of the idea’s chief opponents, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., will lose the chairmanship of the Senate, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, to Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a proponent of vouchers in special education.
“Current law allows for the use of public funds to send disabled kids to private schools if the students can’t get the services they need from public schools,” said Annie White, a legislative adviser to Mr. Gregg on labor and education issues. “Senator Gregg wants to explore reasonable efforts to offer school choice programs for special education students.”
It’s too soon to tell if the voucher debate will extinguish the bipartisan spirit that lawmakers say characterized the discussions over the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before the November elections. Republican leaders, however, say they want to continue the cooperation with the Democrats.
“We have had a history of working in a bipartisan way,” Ms. White said. “Senator Gregg made that a priority when he was on the minority side. That will be the same now that he is on the majority side.”
The Democrats will try and cooperate as long as possible, but they have their own IDEA bill ready to propose at any moment, said Connie Garner, senior disability policy advisor to Sen. Kennedy. Still, the change in the power dynamic on Capitol Hill seems likely to redirect the debate over how to improve programs for the nation’s 6.5 million special education students.
Staff members for the GOP leaders of the education committees said their bosses’ priorities for the IDEA include offering school choice; reducing the amount of paperwork required by schools to document students’ disabilities, needs, and costs; and refining the discipline rules for special education students
With the White House and Congress now controlled by one party, more people in the special education world likely will hasten to make sure lawmakers give their side of the issues a fair chance, said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council.
Call it the “fear factor,” Mr. Rotherham said.
“The Republicans’ having complete control has everybody back on their heels,” said Mr. Rotherham, who served as a special assistant for domestic policy to President Clinton. “I think a lot of people might be thinking, ‘Who knows what these Republicans might do?’ The fear factor may result in bringing more people to the table.”
Sen. Kennedy’s spokesman, Jim Manley, said the Senate had already completed several drafts of the legislation when the balance of power changed Nov. 5. Mr. Kennedy had said he wanted the Senate’s IDEA bill out by January.
But Sen. Gregg does not have an IDEA schedule in mind yet, Ms. White said.
David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the IDEA would be an immediate priority for the House committee. But Mr. Schnittger also said no specific timeline was in place.
Mr. Rotherham, who remembers the previous reauthorization effort, which took three years to complete, is concerned that the voucher issue will bog down the bill.
“If we end up in a big fight over vouchers, it will be very counterproductive,” Mr. Rotherham said.
The President’s Commission on Special Education recommended that the IDEA include vouchers in its July 9 report. In a twist of good timing for supporters of school choice, the report was released on the heels of the June 27 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the use of publicly financed tuition vouchers at religious schools.
The commission report said vouchers should be made available to parents of special education students if their children are not making progress toward their educational goals. But the commission didn’t offer details on how such programs should be set up.
The Florida Way
Lawmakers say the closest model is Florida’s 2-year-old voucher program for special education students.
Under Florida’s McKay Scholarship program, parents of students with disabilities may receive vouchers regardless of how their children’s schools perform in the eyes of the state. Parents of children with disabilities who believe that their schools are not meeting those pupils’ needs are eligible to receive vouchers worth either what their school districts pay in annual costs for those children or the price of private school tuition, whichever is less. (“Florida’s ‘Other’ Voucher Program Taking Off,” August 8, 2001.)
The average value of the Florida vouchers for the 4,000 students who participated last year was about $6,000. This school year, 8,082 students are receiving vouchers at 548 participating schools. An average cost for this year’s crop of vouchers is not yet available.
Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said the Florida program should be used as a template for a federal plan under the IDEA.
“The right thing to do is to allow some genuine experimentation with the choice issue on special education,” said Mr. Finn, who was an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan. “To allow Florida special education to use federal dollars and state dollars, and then evaluate it, is one idea.”
Just as certain issues favored by the GOP have resurfaced as points of contention for the IDEA renewal since Nov. 5, other proposals— advanced by Democrats—appear to be dead on arrival.
For example, with the Bush administration, Rep. Boehner, and Sen. Gregg all opposed to making so- called “full funding” for the IDEA mandatory, the issue may now be moot in the context of this reauthorization of the IDEA. Funding for IDEA grants currently falls under the discretionary side of the federal budget, meaning that Congress may increase or reduce appropriations at will each year.
The funding for programs on the mandatory side of the budget, on the other hand, are entitlements triggered by set formulas and to some degree are shielded from political considerations.
The president’s commission did not recommend making IDEA funding an entitlement program, a proposal that Sen. Tom Harkin, D- Iowa, pushed unsuccessfully last year. During the Senate’s period of Democratic control that began in June 2001, Mr. Harkin assumed the leadership of the education appropriations subcommittee.
But the long-standing question of “full funding” of special education remains to be settled. The Bush administration, Rep. Boehner, and Sen. Gregg have all said they favor full funding. But neither the president nor those lawmakers have offered any specifics beyond saying such funding must be tied to reform of special education.
When the special education law was first passed in 1975, Congress set a goal of providing supplemental federal special education funding equal to up to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure for all K-12 education.
That 40 percent figure is what is commonly referred to as full funding. Because the federal subsidy stands instead at around 16 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure, most special education advocates see the allocation as a failure to meet a promise on funding.
During the Clinton administration, congressional Republicans had cited special education as an example of an unfunded federal mandate to state and local schools. Now, that ball is in their court.
“The Republicans are like the dog who always chased the car, and now he caught it,” Mr. Rotherham said of the funding issue. “Now the dog has the bumper in its mouth, and it doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who had singlehandedly changed the balance of power in the Senate last year when he switched from his Republican affiliation to Independent status and aligned himself with the Democrats, views the midterm-election results as nothing less than a calamity for special education funding.
“Tax cuts are coming and huge deficits,” Sen. Jeffords predicted. “It will be another huge barrier to improving funding.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2002 edition of Education Week as Election Results Boost Special Ed. Vouchers