Special Education

Changes Rejected as IDEA Clears First Vote

By Lisa Fine Goldstein — April 09, 2003 3 min read
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Republicans on a House education subcommittee quashed an effort last week by Democrats to guarantee “full funding” for special education as part of Congress’ overhaul of the main special education law this year.

The proposed amendment by Reps. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to move annual special education funding increases to the mandatory, rather than discretionary, side of the federal budget was defeated on a party-line vote.

Michael N. Castle

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., the chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee, said the Republicans’ bill already includes a seven-year plan to reach what typically is referred to as full funding: a federal subsidy equal to 40 percent of average per-pupil spending nationwide. Advocates say that percentage of federal contribution is a promise made when the law was first enacted more than 25 years ago.

Mr. Castle also said increases in funding should be tied to reforms in special education.

Reps. Woolsey and Van Hollen argued that any funding increases would be meaningless unless they were shielded from the vagaries of the annual appropriations process.

“If it’s not mandatory, I don’t believe it will ever happen,” Ms. Woolsey said. “The children will never, never benefit.”

The “full funding” debate set the partisan tenor for lawmakers’ first formal crack at revising the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the landmark 1975 law that guarantees a free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities. Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee proposed their version of the law late last month, legislation which included measures to reduce paperwork, strengthen accountability, and improve early diagnosis and treatment of students with reading disabilities. (“House Republicans Unveil IDEA Overhaul,” March 26, 2003.)

But in the end, the Republican-controlled subcommittee advanced the bill to the full committee by a voice vote, with no Democrats in opposition. The full House education committee is scheduled to mark up what is suddenly a fleet- footed bill this week. Staff members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee have said a Senate version of the IDEA overhaul likely will makes its debut sometime this month.

The New Version

The version that passed the House panel last week contained several revisions from the original bill.

As introduced, the measure would have required schools to replace performance measures known as “benchmarks and short-term objectives” for students with disabilities with the reporting requirements of the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001. But special education advocacy groups complained, saying benchmarks and short-term objectives provide a better view of those pupils’ abilities.

The new version would restore the use of benchmarks and short-term objectives until the 2005-06 school year, when the report-card requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act must be in place. After then, only students eligible to take alternative assessments under that law—an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—would continue to have benchmarks and short-term objectives as a measure of their progress.

Also, the revised IDEA bill would restore the current formula for calculating funding for state-level administration of special education. In its current form, the bill would limit the funding for state-level activities to 8 percent to 11 percent for each state’s federal grant. And the bill now would ensure that funding for state-level activities would grow by no more than the rate of inflation—a change that would ensure that most future increases in federal special education funding would go to schools, Rep. Castle said.

Republicans shot down several other proposed Democratic amendments along with the full-funding gambit at the April 2 subcommittee session, known as a “markup.”

Chairman Castle even held up a roll call vote so aides could scour Capitol Hill and round up enough missing Republican subcommittee members to stop one amendment. After five minutes, two flushed Republican members huffed and puffed into the hearing room and helped defeat that idea by 10-9.

Rep. Van Hollen, in another unsuccessful move, also proposed “fully funding” the No Child Left Behind Act by appropriating annual funding to reach spending levels set out in the ESEA.

“We are getting off to a very bad start at funding these education programs,” said Mr. Van Hollen, a first-term House member. “This is an opportunity for the education committee to say [education] is a priority.”

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