Special Education

Final IDEA Regulations Clarify Key Issues

By Christina A. Samuels — August 08, 2006 4 min read
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The Department of Education released final regulations last week on the latest reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, incorporating more than 5,500 comments from the public into guidance for states and schools that does not vary significantly from the draft regulations released a year ago, officials say.

The most closely watched issues in the rule-making process have involved teacher qualifications, diagnosis of learning disabilities, and special education students attending private schools.

Both the IDEA and the 4½-year-old No Child Left Behind Act require states to take a sophisticated approach in improving the achievement of students with disabilities, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in an Aug. 3 conference call with reporters.

“While we’re very proud of the rule, we’re even prouder that we at the Department of Education intend to be a full partner with the states as they work on these more sophisticated approaches,” Ms. Spellings said.

“We clarified regulations in a lot of important ways and gave further guidance, which the community expects of us,” she added.

An unofficial version of the final regulations has been posted on the Education Department’s Web site, with a scheduled publication date in the Federal Register of Aug. 14. The rules become official 60 days after appearing in the Register.

The regulations are the guiding document that educators use in interpreting the provisions of the IDEA, which governs the education of about 6.7 million children with disabilities nationwide. The landmark law was first enacted in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The final regulations were issued almost two years after the expansive law was last reauthorized by Congress, in November 2004.

Most of the comments received on the regulations, department officials said, dealt with three key issues: “highly qualified” teachers in special education, “response to intervention” as a method of diagnosing children with learning disabilities, and the education of children with disabilities who are placed in private schools by their parents.

The regulations clarified that states may create what the No Child Left Behind law terms a “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation,” or HOUSSE, specifically for special education teachers. That standard can also be used for special education teachers who instruct students in more than one academic subject.

“There was confusion” on those two points, said Patti Ralabate, the special education adviser to the National Education Association. The NEA was pleased with the clarifications in that part of the regulations, she said.

The issue of teacher qualifications has taken on new importance because the NCLB law requires a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.

Intervention Method

Response to intervention, as a method of diagnosing specific learning disabilities, was mentioned briefly in the text of the 2004 special education statute, but it gets a far more expansive treatment in both the draft and the final IDEA regulations. However, in the final regulations, the Education Department clarifies that states can still use other methods of diagnosing children with learning disabilities.

Revised Rules on Special Education

The Department of Education’s final regulations for the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act include a number of clarifications:

Highly qualified teachers: States may develop a separate high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation, or HOUSSE, specifically for special education teachers, provided it does not establish a lower standard for content knowledge than for regular education teachers. The “highly qualified teacher” provisions do not apply to private school teachers.

Response to intervention: The final regulations remove a provision in the draft version that would have prohibited states from allowing districts to use the “severe discrepancy” method of diagnosing students with specific learning disabilities.

Students in private schools: A school district will be responsible for providing special education services to students with disabilities who attend private school in that district, even if the students reside in other districts. The final regulations require districts, which already must set aside a certain percentage of federal funds for services to private school students, to roll over any unspent funds in that category for an additional year. Those funds must still be used to provide services to private school students.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

By far, the largest percentage of students receiving special education services—about 49 percent—have “specific learning disabilities,” according to a 2003 report from the department that examined the demographics of students in special education.

Response to intervention, or RTI, aims to identify students with learning difficulties by requiring that all students—those potentially with learning disabilities and those without—be given a variety of “interventions,” or lessons, on subjects that are causing them difficulty. If a student fails to make progress after a series of interventions, further investigation may be warranted, according to the methodology. (“RTI Method Gets Boost in Spec. Ed.,” Nov. 30, 2005.)

Justine Maloney, the Washington representative of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, said her organization fought hard to have RTI not be considered the only way of diagnosing a child with a learning disability. Another commonly used method is called the “discrepancy model,” when a child’s achievement does not match his or her IQ-test score.

The position of the disabilities group is that RTI is a method that merits further study before it should be required, Ms. Maloney said.

The private school provision in the regulations requires a school district to provide special education services to a student who attends private school within the district, even if the student resides elsewhere.

That provision is a “total minus” for us, said Jeff Simering, the director of legislation for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group for the nation’s large urban school systems. Private schools asked for the provision in their comments because it would make it easier for them to obtain special education services for their students.

State Regulations Next

Few in the education or disabilities community late last week had fully digested the regulations, which run to 1,700 pages. Most of that material is the Education Department’s analysis of and response to the many comments it received.

Luann L. Purcell, the executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education, said the regulations were noteworthy for coming out faster than the previous set, which appeared a full two years after the IDEA’s 1997 reauthorization.

The district-based special education administrators making up her group must now turn to the states, which will model their own special education rules after the federal provisions.

“Hopefully, they’ve all begun doing that,” Ms. Purcell said. “That’ll be the next big issue.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week as Final IDEA Regulations Clarify Key Issues

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