Parents of children with disabilities and representatives of disability-rights advocacy groups said at a recent public hearing that they were worried the proposed regulations for the Individuals with Disabilties Education Act would tip the balance of power toward school districts.
School administrators and other educators generally spoke in favor of maintaining flexibility for states within the regulations. The July 12 hearing was the last, and largest, of seven meetings the Department of Education has held around the country this summer to gather input on the proposed IDEA rules.
Several educators at the session at Gallaudet University here asked the department to provide more information on a method of identifying children with specific learning disabilities, called “response to intervention,” that is promoted within the proposed rules. Several said that effectiveness of the method was unproven for all but reading instruction for young students, and that many teachers don’t know how to apply it.
The IDEA, which was reauthorized by Congress in November, governs the education of more than 6 million students with disabilities. The Education Department is taking comments on its proposed regulations, which appear in the June 21 Federal Register, until September, said Troy R. Justesen, the acting director of the office of special education programs.
After that deadline comes the process of synthesizing the thousands of remarks and using them to write the final regulations, which are scheduled to be released by December, he said.
Parent and School Concerns
While awaiting their turn to speak at the final hearing, Jenn Sikora of Springfield, Va., and Deb Balderos of Lorton, Va., played in the back of the room on a blanket strewn with toys that they brought for their young children.
Both came to speak on behalf of their sons, who have Down syndrome, and the Down Syndrome Association of Northern Virginia. The parents say they believe a proposed change from current regulations that would require schools to provide a general education “environment” for special education students, as opposed to access to the regular classroom, means that their children could be kept away from their peers.
“We need the department to clean this mess up so our children can get the education they deserve,” said Ms. Balderos, whose son Mitchell is 14 months old.
Ms. Sikora, who choked back tears as she addressed the hearing, said she was also concerned that the proposed rules would consider a parent’s attendance at some educational placement meetings to be optional.
“No one is gong to know his needs better than I do, or advocate for him like I can,” said Ms. Sikora, whose son Sean is 2½. “My feeling is, if you’re making decisions about the education of my son, I’m going to be there.”
H. Douglas Cox, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education, spoke in favor of allowing the states to decide whether students placed in private schools by local districts must be taught by teachers deemed “highly qualified” under federal law.
Currently, states have different requirements for teachers of students who are placed in private schools by districts. However, the proposed regulations state clearly that teachers in private schools do not fall under the No Child Left Behind Act’s provisions on highly qualified teachers.
“The concern is, are we setting a different standard for students who are placed in private schools?” Mr. Cox said after the meeting.
Jean E. Lokerson, an educational consultant and a professor emerita at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, asked the department to consider changing the “response to intervention” language in the proposed regulations.
Instead of basing a learning-disability identification on a child’s IQ compared with his or her performance in school—the “IQ discrepancy” model—the rules would encourage states to chart a student’s response to high-quality, varied teaching methods.
If the student did not respond to such educational interventions, he or she could be considered eligible for special education services. The “response to intervention,” or RTI, method is considered preferable, according to the regulations, because learning difficulties would presumably be caught and addressed early in a child’s school career.
Under the proposed regulations, states could prohibit districts from using any other method. But Ms. Lokerson said the method was still too new and untried to be the only way specific learning disabilities are identified.
“As a professional, I find it both ludicrous and terrifying when we have embraced evidence-based practice, to be allowing, let alone mandating, an RTI process that is still primarily theoretical,” Ms. Lokerson said.