The first overhaul of the nation’s main special education law in seven years is getting guarded approval from education officials and advocacy groups.
As they analyzed the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act last week, many people in the field said the bill appears to give school districts a stronger hand in special education disputes. Although they identified provisions they would change, most analysts said the measure is an adequate compromise between Senate and House versions.
“Overall, we’re pretty pleased with it,” said Daniel Blair, the senior director for public policy at the Council for Exceptional Children, an Arlington, Va.-based organization dedicated to improving education for students with disabilities and gifted students. “We think it will do a lot for children with disabilities.”
President Bush has said he looks forward to signing the bill, though a date has not been set. The measure, which breezed through both houses of Congress on Nov. 19, would provide the education framework for 6.7 million students with disabilities nationwide. It would bring several important changes to special education, including in the areas of student discipline, teacher qualifications, paperwork requirements, and the complaint process.
Paul Marchand, the staff director for The Arc and United Cerebral Palsy Disability Policy Collaboration, said the final bill was a vast improvement over its early incarnation in the House.
“The worst thing that could have happened was to have the [original] House bill pass. That would have been disastrous,” he said. That bill, he said, would have allowed schools to discipline students without regard for their disability, would have eliminated student rights “in the guise of paperwork reduction,” and would have created an arduous due-process procedure for parents.
In contrast, with the recently approved measure, “there is a general sense that this is fair,” said Mr. Marchand, whose Washington-based organization lobbies both for the Arc, a disability-rights group that focuses on the mentally retarded, and the United Cerebral Palsy Associations.
Lawmakers praised each other for their bipartisan spirit before passage of the final bill, which was approved 397-3 in the House and by voice vote in the Senate. The three House members to vote against the final bill were Reps. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, and Ron Paul of Texas, all Republicans.
Power to Districts?
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he could think of “no finer way” to end his chairmanship than to complete work on the bill.
But the reauthorization process was marked by partisan tensions in the early stages. The Senate bill passed by an overwhelming 95-3 majority in May 2003. But in the House, the bill passed this past April by a vote of 251-171, with only 34 Democrats in support.
The final bill does not include any funding commitments, though lawmakers agreed in principle to pay 40 percent of the average nationwide cost of educating a student in special education.
The CEC’s Mr. Blair said his organization was disappointed by the lack of a funding commitment. “That’s been something that we have always wanted, some mechanism by which they could fully fund it,” he said.
On Nov. 20, Congress approved a $10.7 billion budget for special education for fiscal 2005, nearly $500 million under the amount President Bush had requested. (“2005 Budget Gives Schools Modest Jump,” this issue.)
Most observers believe the new IDEA would give more power to school districts to determine a child’s placement and to limit lawsuits. Lawyers could be punished for filing complaints eventually deemed frivolous.
“This could have a chilling effect on parents who have legitimate complaints,” said Susan Goodman, the director of governmental affairs for the Atlanta-based National Down Syndrome Congress.
Also, school districts would have the power under the new measure to move students who have discipline problems not related to their disabilities. Currently, students can stay in the classroom after an incident, unless the school makes the case in an administrative hearing that the child needs to be moved.
Ms. Goodman believes the new provision is taking an important protection away from children. However, the American Association of School Administrators supported the change, said Bruce Hunter, the Arlington, Va.-based organization’s chief lobbyist.
“Where teachers are concerned for themselves or for other children, the student is gone from their classroom until a new placement is worked out,” he said.
The new measure would also add language authorizing students to be removed from the classroom for committing “serious bodily injury.” The current language already allows removal for bringing in guns, bombs, or drugs.
The serious-bodily-injury standard is “way too high,” Mr. Hunter said. “Under this, a student has to actually hurt the teacher.”
Another major provision in the bill would clarify what makes a special education teacher “highly qualified” under the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Such teachers would have to meet state licensing standards, and those who teach multiple subjects must meet their state’s “highly qualified” standard in every subject they teach.
Highly Qualified Teachers
But the measure would give new special education teachers who teach multiple subjects and who are already highly qualified in math, language arts, or science two years to show competency in their additional subjects.
The bill would also permit new special education teachers to become highly qualified under the “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation,” or HOUSSE. That option allows teachers to show competence without re-enrolling in college or passing a subject-level test.
The revised IDEA’s provision on teachers has led to a number of objections. The CEC’s Mr. Blair objects to the HOUSSE option because he believes teachers who educate children with disabilities should be specially trained, and a test doesn’t necessarily measure that..
“To us, it’s a slap in the face of the notion of ‘highly qualified,’ ” he said.
Mr. Hunter said the teacher-quality provision does not reflect the fact that special education teachers who are teaching multiple subjects are doing so “at a very low level.”
“If they were actually teaching physics and chemistry, this would make a difference, but they’re not,” he said of most special education teachers. Certification should be similar to that for elementary school teachers, who also teach multiple subjects, Mr. Hunter said.
Nancy D. Reder, the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, raised another concern: If teachers go through the state process to become highly qualified, what would stop them from just going on to teach regular education students in that subject?
“I mean, why not?” she said. “It’s less paperwork.”
At the district level, educators are waiting for regulations that would explain further some of the provisions in the revised IDEA. However, some have already seen provisions they welcome.
Patricia Addison, the director of special education for the 163,000-student Fairfax County, Va., school district, said she liked that the measure lays out a plan for funding 40 percent of special education costs by 2011.
“I’m especially encouraged to see at least 15 states will have the opportunity to pilot paperwork reduction,” said Ms. Addison, who is also the president of the Virginia Council of Administrators of Special Education. New teachers in particular find themselves overwhelmed by paperwork, she said.
“We’d like to train those teachers so that they can implement a successful training program,” Ms. Addison said, not focus so strongly on making sure paperwork is completed correctly.
Jerry Sjolander, the executive director of special education for the 50,000-student Anchorage, Alaska, school district, said the measure would provide an opportunity to identify and possibly solve parents’ concerns before due-process hearings. Under the final bill, parents and a school district must meet before a due-process hearing can be scheduled.
“The time we spend wrapped up in those issues is an incredible amount,” said Mr. Sjolander, who oversees about 7,000 special education students. “It saps district resources.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Reauthorized IDEA Could Shift Power to School Districts