House Republican lawmakers have proposed big changes to the nation’s main special education law, including measures to reduce paperwork, boost accountability, and improve early diagnosis and treatment of students with reading disabilities.
But the bill unveiled last week was likewise notable for what it lacks: a measure to guarantee “full funding” for special education and any mention of school choice programs for students with disabilities.
As the nation was on the verge of war in Iraq, the Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee on March 19 quietly introduced the long-awaited bill to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The landmark 1975 law that promised a free, appropriate public education for students with disabilities now serves about 6.3 million students. The law is celebrated for helping many with disabilities graduate from high school or learn life skills.
But many educators complain it comes with mountainous paperwork, fosters an antagonistic and sometimes litigious atmosphere between parents and teachers, and stretches school resources thin.
“Those who believe money alone can be the magic cure for the problems in our special education system are wrong,” Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House education committee, said in a statement. “We have a responsibility to parents, teachers, and children to ensure that these resources are funding a system that produces the best possible results.”
The IDEA was slated for reauthorization in the last session of Congress. But like many bills caught up in last year’s pre-election partisan hammerlock, the IDEA fell onto the new Congress’ to-do list. Both the House and Senate education committees say revising the law is their top education priority.
The last reauthorization of the law, originally scheduled for 1997, was so fraught with contention that it took three years to finish. Lawmakers active on education matters vow to avoid a repeat performance.
An advocate for school administrators said the bulk of the proposed House GOP bill is a big victory for schools. But Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, remains ambivalent.
“It will save a lot of time and effort, so it’s hard not to be cheered by it,” Mr. Hunter said. “If they had just put the money in ... I’d be walking through fire for it.”
The Republicans’ plan would help reduce paperwork by letting school districts draw up individualized education plans— federally required educational road maps for students with disabilities—every three years, rather than annually, as required now.
The bill also would align the special education law with the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, an overhaul of the Elememtary and Secondary Education Act that requires greater accountability from schools. Special education teachers, for instance, would have to be “highly qualified” to teach in core subject areas, just like educators in schools’ mainstream programs.
To help reduce the number of students who might be wrongly placed in special education, the bill would let school districts use some federal money for programs that help students before they are identified as needing special education. It also would eliminate the use of IQ tests to diagnose learning disabilities, because many experts deem those tests to be biased against poor and minority students.
‘Full Funding’ Fight
But school officials are in for a battle over what they say they need perhaps most of all: a promise of full funding from Washington for special education.
When the original version of what is now 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.”
That goal has proved elusive. The federal IDEA subsidy for states is at about 17 percent. Advocates see the 40 percent level as a promise Congress has failed to keep; some other observers see that level strictly as a ceiling.
The House GOP proposal would not guarantee “full funding” of the federal program, but instead contains a plan to achieve such funding over seven years.
“Our school districts continue to need additional resources to meet the needs of children with disabilities, yet the Republican bill fails to provide full funding of special education,” Rep. George Miller of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in a statement.
“They are breaking their word on special education funding,” he said, “just as they broke their promise to provide schools the resources they promised when we enacted the historic No Child Left Behind Act.”
A Quiet Debut
In contrast to the much- publicized debut of the last major federal education overhaul, the No Child Left Behind Act, in early 2001, there was no fanfare and no press conference.
Also, the GOP-sponsored bill represents at least a temporary breakdown in the bipartisan effort to overhaul the IDEA. Lawmakers on the House education committee had earlier expressed their goal of introducing a bipartisan bill.
“There are still many areas where we are in agreement,” said Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for the House committee. “While it was important to have a bipartisan bill, it was more important to get a bill out there.
“This isn’t the end of the process,” she said. “We will continue to work in a bipartisan way to mark up the bill.”
The legislation does not contain several controversial measures, which will be proposed in separate amendments or separate bills. The first, proposed the day after the main bill, was a measure by Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., that would allow a portion of federal special education grants to states to be used for state school choice programs, including vouchers for private schools and supplemental services.
Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hopes to have a bipartisan bill ready to introduce in April, said Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the committee.
“Our strategy is a little more time-intensive,” Ms. Iverson said. “We are going through each issue and working [in] a bipartisan way, before putting a bill forward, saving other issues for floor debate.
“Also, we are dealing with health, and national security issues,” she noted. “We need to get this smallpox proposal out first.”