When education committee members in the House and the Senate roll out long-awaited bills overhauling the main federal special education law in a few weeks, their handiwork likely will appear largely defanged. In an attempt to start on safely common ground, congressional sources say, both panels plan to omit the more disputed aspects of special education governance from the legislation.
Measures on knotty issues expected to be the heart of the Individuals with Disabilities Act revision—reducing paperwork related to the law, disciplining special education students, “fully funding” the law, and offering a voucher program for students with disabilities—will most likely be taken up in amendments to the bill or separate bills, staff aides say.
“It makes sense to start from areas from which you can agree,” said Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “We wanted to start from a position of common ground and make a real commitment to set that tone for the committees’ approach to IDEA.”
Reauthorizing the IDEA, the landmark 1975 law that guarantees the nation’s 6 million students with disabilities a “free, appropriate” public education, will be the first major education initiative of the new Congress, committee staff members say. Lawmakers are also slated to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, Head Start, and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act this year.
The Senate education committee hopes to unveil its version of the IDEA next month. The House Education and the Workforce Committee could move even earlier and introduce the bill later this month, committee aides say.
Aides said Republicans and Democrats in each chamber still hold out the possibility of introducing separate versions of the IDEA reauthorization if talks fall apart.
“We anticipate that Republicans and Democrats will continue to work together in this process,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for the House education panel. “But we are prepared to move legislatively. It is not clear if it will be a bipartisan bill or Democrat and Republican bills.”
With lingering memories of the last IDEA reauthorization in 1997, which took a grueling three years, members of both committees decided to leave the most controversial measures to separate, more focused amendments or bills to avoid further dragging out what has already been a sluggish-to-start process, committee aides said. The IDEA was next in line among major education bills a year ago, but remained anchored in the theoretical stage.
These legislative outriders have already begun to surface.
Special educators complain they spend too much time filling out paperwork related to the law, and not enough time with their students. With that in mind, one member of the House education committee late last month introduced the proposed Paperwork Reduction Act. The measure by Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., would let school districts draw up individualized education plans—federally required educational road maps for students with disabilities— every three years, rather than annually, as stipulated in the current IDEA.
The change would mean revisiting the IEPs close to transition points in the student’s life—from the elementary grades to middle school or junior high, and then to high school. In between, the school officials would meet with parents for a streamlined annual review to make sure students were meeting the goals outlined in their plans.
Under the proposal, the students would receive a more comprehensive review of their IEPs every three years.
“The legislation will improve the academic achievement of special education students, while also doing away with an overly prescriptive and burdensome process for teachers,” Rep. Keller said in a statement.
But at least one leading parent group has already expressed concern that the measure would make schools less accountable to parents of students with disabilities. The National PTA said it opposes the idea of a three-year IEP.
In another amendment under development, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., plan to try once again to make “full funding” of the IDEA by the federal government mandatory, rather than discretionary.
For many educators and advocates, the most critical issue in special education is the need for more federal dollars. Without more money from Washington through the years, they argue, states and districts have been forced to cut other programs to pay special education costs. In other cases, districts have had to raise local taxes.
When the original version of what is now called the IDEA was passed in 1975, Congress said it would subsidize the added cost of providing appropriate services for special education students by kicking in up to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil cost of educating students overall.
Federal aid at that 40 percent level under the IDEA is what is commonly referred to as “full funding.”
But the goal has been elusive. Federal IDEA funding for states is at about the 16 percent level. Advocates see the 40 percent aid level as a promise Congress has failed to keep; some other observers see that level strictly as a ceiling, not a pledge or a goal.
While details of the Harkin-Hagel amendment are still being worked out, Republican Senate aides say the two senators’ bill would shift IDEA funding increases from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the federal budget, locking in substantial increases for the next several years.
One approach under consideration would let districts reduce the local funding of special education, replacing it a dollar-for-dollar basis with any new federal special education money. That arrangement would allow districts to roll the local money into the general education budget.
Discipline Under IDEA
On another contentious point, some educators believe that special education students who commit serious infractions are not punished as strictly as regular students. Special education students who are disciplined cannot be out of school for more than 10 days without returning to the classroom or receiving services in an alternative setting.
Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., are working on an amendment revising discipline policies. Under one scenario, the measure would say all students were subject to the same punishments, unless a given student’s behavior was caused by a disability or the failure of the school to follow that student’s IEP.
Also, under current law, schools have to assess immediately whether a special education student’s infraction was a result of his or her disability.
One plan under consideration would shift the burden to parents, who would have to request such an investigation and help make the case for why a student had acted as a result of a disability.