Special Education

Lawmakers, Paige Debate Reform, Funding as IDEA Overhaul Looms

By Joetta L. Sack — October 10, 2001 4 min read
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The nation’s main special education law has “serious cracks” and needs more than just money to fix it, Republican leaders said last week.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige discusses special education Oct. 4 at a hearing of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Mr. Paige said additional funding for special education must be coupled with reforms in how federal money is spent and how students are identified as needing special education services.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

Secretary of Education Rod Paige told members of the House that the Bush administration hopes to instill more accountability into special education and wants to see better results for students with disabilities. The White House also announced the creation of a commission to study the topic.

In its first hearing on the upcoming reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee gave a sneak preview last week of what figures to be a contentious overhaul of the 26-year-old law.

“While its triumphs greatly outnumber its failures, the IDEA system has developed serious cracks that we must work closely together to fix next year,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the committee.

The focus of the hearing was the proportion of minority students in special education, which is far beyond their numbers in the general school population, but the debate turned to whether IDEA funding should be on the mandatory or discretionary side of the federal budget.

If it were mandatory, lawmakers would be required to add large increases to pay 40 percent of what are considered states’ excess costs under the law—the level of federal support that advocates say Congress envisioned when it first passed the legislation in 1975.

If, on the other hand, special education funding remains a disc retionary item, Congress may add or subtract funding as it wishes. The law has received substantial increases in the last five years: State grants under the IDEA are currently funded at $6.34 billion, up 111 percent since fiscal 1996.

Secretary Paige contended last week that some states were having trouble spending that wave of new funding properly. But he could not provide further details, and Rep. George Miller of California, the panel’s top Democrat, disputed that characterization.

“Almost every member has had his credibility challenged” by educators and state officials asking for more IDEA money, Mr. Miller said. “People clearly believe there is an obligation and a promise from the federal government.”

Mr. Miller and other members from both parties were at times visibly frustrated with Mr. Paige’s responses. Later, the secretary was unable to answer questions from Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del. on whether local districts’ budgets had been relieved by the recent influx of new IDEA money."But that’s the reason we have hearings—to get information,” Mr. Castle said.

Mr. Paige said that much more would be known once the commission began its research.

Reform and Funding

That commission, which will be chaired by former Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, a Republican, includes 15 other appointees with experience in special education, plus five other federal officials who will serve as expert advisers. It will explore how the federal government could improve special education and will recommend policies. It is scheduled to release a report by next April.

“I would not assume the only problem is the lack of dollars,” Mr. Paige said. “That’s why we want to take a good look at reforms, and we want the reforms attached to dollars.”

Committee members disagreed on whether too many students are classified as having disabilities—or not enough.

While most members and witnesses at last week’s hearing agreed that there is a problem of overidentification of minority students for special education, some suggested that many other students also were incorrectly placed in special education, such as children whose parents simply wanted extra services for them.

But some experts maintain that the rolls are too small. Too often, they say, children languish on waiting lists for evaluations.

Thomas Hehir, a special education researcher and lecturer at Harvard University, said the problem of overidentification of minority students was real and could be exacerbated by inadequate federal funding.

Insufficient money for programs such as early reading instruction and behavioral interventions has led to more students, particularly minorities in impoverished areas, being shuffled into special education for remedial services, he argued.

Mr. Hehir served as the director of the Department of Education’s office of special education programs during the Clinton administration.

The last IDEA reauthorization, completed in 1997, took nearly three years and was mired in disputes over discipline for students with disabilities, among other issues. Some states are still struggling to implement provisions on assessments and other accountability measures contained in that most recent version of the law.

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