It may be 2005 by the time Congress gets around to finishing its already-overdue rewrite of the law guiding the education of the nation’s 6.5 million students with disabilities.
With a crowded schedule and perhaps only another week or two before a recess, it looks improbable that the Senate will take floor action this year on the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law, congressional observers say.
“It’s extremely unlikely that it will happen,” one Senate Democratic aide said last week. “At this point, if [legislation] doesn’t have to be done, it will not be done. The Republican leadership would like to say they got done the Medicare and energy bills. Those are the main priorities they feel are politically sensitive.”
The IDEA was scheduled for reauthorization last year, but the process has been delayed by a range of contentious issues, such as including what is deemed full federal funding for special education, discipline policies for students with special needs, and school choice measures. The bills in Congress also contain provisions related to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which has separately come under fire as being underfunded.
The House adopted its version of the reauthorization on April 30. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee agreed to an IDEA bill on June 25, but Senate leaders haven’t brought it to the floor.
“When you get to things that lead to criticism of No Child Left Behind, and how you will fund IDEA, there is a real reluctance on the part of the administration and Republicans in Congress to bring these things to the surface to expose fault lines,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
The fact that 2004 is a presidential-election year could provide an added complication for the special education law, observers say.
“As you move into the election season, it gets tougher,” Mr. Ornstein added. “I’m sure they had wanted to get these kinds of controversial bills out of the way earlier. I wouldn’t bet my mortgage that we’ll see it next year.”
A Complicated Conference?
Erin Rath, a spokeswoman for Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Senate education committee, said that while lawmakers were working hard on the bill and hoped to finish it soon, they recognized the possibility it would not get done this year.
“This legislation is ready for floor consideration, and that schedule must be determined by the leaders,” Ms. Rath said. “It would be our hope that the Senate could work out an agreement to take up this bill before the end of the year, but with the long line of items waiting for action, and the days running short, it is unclear at this point whether or not that might happen.”
Ms. Rath said if the bill did not come up this year, the committee would push for it to be heard early next year.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the education committee, said, “We’re hoping to get the bill through the Senate before we go out for the year.”
One Republican aide said he believes that the Senate could pass a bill early next year, the second of the current Congress, but that there would be difficulty in working out differences between the Senate and House versions.
“The question is whether we could get the conference done in an election year,” the aide said, referring the process by which a House-Senate committee resolves such differences. “Conference will be long and complicated.”
There are several key differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, on such issues as student discipline, how frequently students’ individualized education plans would have to be rewritten, and on what defines a “highly qualified” special education teacher. (“Discipline Split at Heart of IDEA Overhaul Debate,” June 18, 2003.)
The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all teachers, including those teaching special education, be certified in the core subjects they teach. That goal is unrealistic for special education teachers, who are often certified in special education and may teach multiple core subjects, some educators say.
While the House version of the IDEA would require special education teachers to be highly qualified in the core subjects they teach, the Senate committee’s version would require only that such teachers be certified in special education.
“The schools out there are waiting for some guidance,” said Patti Ralabate, a special education adviser to the National Education Association. “It would be very sad if they don’t act on the bill on the Senate floor and allow it to go forward. It ignores two years of work putting this together.”