Congress has approved legislation that reauthorizes the main federal special education law, a bipartisan compromise designed to improve the educational opportunities of some 6.7 million children with disabilities.
The House voted 397-3 on Nov. 19 to approve the latest version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Hours later, the Senate followed suit with a voice vote in favor of the plan. President Bush is expected to sign the measure.
The reauthorized IDEA would mandate quality standards for special education teachers, streamline disciplinary actions involving students with disabilities, and attempt to reduce the number of lawsuits stemming from the statute.
Shortly before the measure’s passage in the House, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the the Education and the Workforce Committee, called the final bill “a tremendous achievement of compromise, of vision, determination, and bipartisanship.”
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the ranking Democrat on the Education Reform Subcommittee, noted that she opposed the original House version of the IDEA bill. That measure passed the chamber in April 2003 with only 34 Democrats in favor.
“Since then, there has been a lot of bipartisan effort,” she said. The three House members to vote against the final bill last week were Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, Scott Garrett, R-N.J, and Ron Paul, R-Texas.
Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, stated before the vote that “this has been a rather toxic season in the political arena and in this Congress. There is not a lot of evidence that there is a lot of bipartisan action taking place in the Congress of the United States.”
But, he added, “in this committee, on this subject, we were able to work through all of those environmental concerns about the atmosphere and arrive at legislation that is going to be very good for those children with special needs.”
At their Nov. 17 session, conference committee members applauded the measure as an example of bipartisan work to reconcile differing bills that passed the House and the Senate during the past two years.
“We have approved what I think is an extremely strong piece of legislation that will move the ball down the field,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said: “The agreement we have reached demonstrates what Americans have come to realize—that students with disabilities are a far too important priority to be used as a political tool or cast aside because of an election schedule. Their education is not a partisan issue.”
Rep. Boehner said changes in the bill would bring the special education law closer to the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“The process of education reform did not end with the No Child Left Behind Act. It just began,” Rep. Boehner said of the wide-ranging school improvement measure adopted three years ago.
Two Years Overdue
The IDEA is the current shorthand for the landmark law that Congress first enacted in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. It was last revised in 1997, and its latest reauthorization—two years overdue—was long hung up in partisan tensions.
The Senate passed its original bill by a vote of 95-3 in May. The House’s initial bill, however, was approved by a narrower margin, 251-171, in 2003. The conference committee hammered out significant differences in the two versions.
But the measure still does not lock Congress into any funding commitments, an omission that prompted a “no” vote in the conference committee from Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont Independent who left the Republican Party two years ago in large part over disagreement about the party’s commitment to funding special education.
Sen. Jeffords had voted against the Senate version of the bill in May, calling it then a “hollow promise” and an unfunded mandate. His was the only no vote among the 28 House and Senate conference committee members voting last week. He continued his opposition to the final measure.
In a statement, Sen. Jeffords said, “As we approach the 30th anniversary of the original IDEA law, it is unconscionable that we, the Congress, will have once again failed to fulfill our commitment to pay the 40 percent share we promised almost three decades ago. In fact, as of today, we are not even halfway there.”
He was also concerned about the definition of highly qualified teachers under the measure, and a provision allowing schools to divert some federal special education funding to other education programs.
This year, the federal government is estimating it will pay 19 percent of the costs of educating students with disabilities, and it has set a goal of funding 40 percent of the national average of per-pupil spending by 2011.
On one of the most sensitive policy issues, the bill would allow school districts greater flexibility in dealing with special education students who have behavior problems.
If students with disabilities required discipline for misbehavior that was not related to their disabilities, they could be moved to another setting. Under the current law, schools are required to prove the need for a change of placement. In the conference committee’s bill, the burden would now be on the parents to appeal the school district’s decision.
The change is intended to eliminate separate punishment tracks for students once it has been determined that their behavior is not related to their disabilities.
Michael Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that disciplinary change was one sought by members of his organization.
“It comes back to if we believe that these students can be in the classroom with all the other kids, the student needs to know how to act appropriately,” Mr. Carr said.
The bill’s provisions on “highly qualified” teachers would parallel those of the No Child Left Behind Act. To be highly qualified under the revised IDEA, teachers would have to be fully certified in special education or pass state special education licensure exams. They also would have to hold a bachelor’s degree and demonstrate knowledge of each subject for which they were the primary teacher.
Veteran teachers would be required to meet the standards by the end of the 2005-06 school year, even if they were teaching multiple subjects to students. New special education teachers would have extra time to become certified in different subjects, as long as they were fully credentialed in at least one.
The topic of teacher qualifications was the only one debated during the Nov. 17 conference committee meeting. Some committee members floated the idea of giving veteran special education teachers an extra year to meet the “highly qualified” standards, putting them off until the 2006-07 school year.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., asked fellow lawmakers to consider the one-year postponement, particularly because special education teachers often teach multiple subjects. The amendment, however, was rejected on a voice vote.
“A highly qualified teacher is probably the most important person in this entire process” aside from parents, said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee. He noted that the states have had time to create programs to help teachers meet the federal standards.
“If [states] decided to gamble on whether we would eviscerate the standard of a highly qualified teacher, they have lost,” Rep. Miller said.
Kim Anderson, a lobbyist with the National Education Association, said the teacher-qualification provision was a disappointing part of the IDEA bill. States have been waiting for guidance from the Department of Education on creating certification rules for special education teachers, she said.
If flexibility can be provided to rural teachers who instruct students in multiple subjects, as the department has done, the same flexibility should be afforded to special education teachers, she said.
“To us, it seems like it’s slapping the wrong party here,” she said.
The bill also includes a provision for teachers and parents to make “minor” adjustments to a child’s individualized education plan-required for all students receiving special education services-without reconvening a full IEP meeting. The change is intended to make it easier for parents to be involved in the IEP process without attending numerous meetings. And under a pilot program, 15 states would be given the opportunity to develop plans to reduce paperwork and free up more instructional time for teachers.
Lawmakers also tried to devise a way to reduce the number of lawsuits that special education placements often generate.
The committee’s bill encourages the use of mediation whenever possible. Parents and school officials would have to meet and try to solve problems before convening a due-process hearing.
A two-year statute of limitations would be placed on a parent’s ability to file a complaint, with a 90-day limitation on appeals.
Also, hearing officers would have to make decisions based on whether a child was denied an appropriate education, not because of procedural mistakes.