Special Education

Senate Democrats Hope to Pass IDEA Overhaul This Year

By Lisa Fine — March 27, 2002 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Senate education committee plans to move quickly to pass its version of the main federal law on special education, which is up for reauthorization this year.

With elections looming in the fall, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy steering the Senate’s education agenda by the grace of a one-vote Democratic majority, his party wants to move on the legislation. Even if the Senate’s bill runs aground in the Republican-controlled House, Democrats could gain an election-year talking point.

“There is a lack of real commitment from Republicans on the education issues,” charged Bill Buck, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “Democrats would like to move forward.”

With the dynamics in Congress in flux, Mr. Kennedy may have only the remaining months of 2002 to hammer out his vision of a special education overhaul.

“We want to reauthorize the bill this year, and Senator Kennedy is going to make sure that happens,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Democrat, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “Hopefully, we will pass the bills all before the end of the year. If we didn’t do this, we’d have to wait to do this until next year, and start all over when everything will be different.”

House Republicans have said they would like to pass a special education law this year as well, albeit one likely to be much different from the Senate version.

Revising the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—the next major education issue looming in Congress— carries potentially high stakes for both parties in this shortened legislative year, political observers say.

Leaving ESEA Behind

With the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 now behind them, lawmakers are wading into the controversial special education law in the months leading up to the midterm elections.

Education committee members in both chambers may be torn between wanting to ride the successful conclusion of the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act—without getting mired in the special education debate— and the desire to leave their mark in case a power shift happens to bump them out of control.

“The election is not based on IDEA at this point,” said David Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education. “I think for many lawmakers, it’s like a football game. You’ve had a big score; you are deep in your own territory. As you go into the second half of the game, what do you do?”

Sally Lovejoy, a senior staff member for the Republican-controlled House Education and the Workforce Committee, has said House Republicans would not offer any proposals or “get out ahead” of President Bush’s commission on special education, which plans a July release of its recommendations for how to revise the IDEA. The historic law, first passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, established the right of students with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education.

Mr. Manley said the Senate committee, however, feels no such compulsion to wait.

“Waiting for the president’s commission on special education’s report— that’s what the Republicans want to do,” Mr. Manley said. “Senator Kennedy is not committed to a schedule.”

The Senate education committee held its first hearing on the IDEA last week, featuring testimony from Robert Pasternack, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, along with advocates and educators from around the country.

The House education committee, chaired by Rep. John A. Boehner, R- Ohio, held one hearing last October to examine the disproportionately high number of minority students placed in special education. And the panel will soon release “an aggressive hearing schedule,” leading up to the release of the commission’s report this summer, said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. Boehner.

Mr. Buck, the Democratic National Committee spokesman, suggested that waiting until the summer might also be a political strategy for the Republicans.

“They [Republicans] already had their ‘photo op’ with the president signing the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act bill. That’s all they need,” Mr. Buck said.

But Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said the GOP would only be helped by a chance to advance its education record.

“We are not doing things for political reasons,” he said. “It is more important than any one election cycle. Republicans have the strongest record in education in 2002 that we have ever had.”

“We have erased a huge gap on education with the American people,” he added. “Things with special education will get addressed as we move on. Let’s see what the commission’s recommendations are.”

The ‘Right Children’

Legislators on both sides of the aisle agree there are many problems in special education that need to be addressed.

At last Thursday’s Senate hearing, Mr. Pasternack spoke about such problems as the need for more highly qualified special education teachers.

Mr. Pasternack said that educators need to do a better job of providing the right services to “the right children” for special education, defining such students as those who truly have disabilities. He distinguished them from other other students who struggle for various other reasons and fall behind their classmates.

Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont Independent who chaired the education committee until he left the GOP last year, said at the hearing that he was disturbed by the term “the right children.” That choice of words, he said, indicated that the administration may be anxious to declassify some students from special education to save money.

“There is no effort to do that,” Mr. Pasternack said. “I think I need to work on that phrase. We do not want anyone to be afraid that we are trying to do that.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Senate Democrats Hope to Pass IDEA Overhaul This Year

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Modernizing Principal Support: The Road to More Connected and Effective Leaders
When principals are better equipped to lead, support, and maintain high levels of teaching and learning, outcomes for students are improved.
Content provided by BetterLesson
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education L.A. Agrees to Do More After Failing on Special Education. Could Other Districts Be Next?
The district failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities during the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education found.
6 min read
Conceptual image of supporting students.
Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week (Source images: DigitalVision Vectors and iStock/Getty)
Special Education Protect Students With Disabilities as COVID Rules Ease, Education Secretary Tells Schools
Even as schools drop precautions like mask requirements, they must by law protect medically vulnerable students, a letter emphasizes.
3 min read
Image of a student holding a mask and a backpack near the entrance of a classroom.
E+
Special Education Hearing, Vision ... Autism? Proposal Would Add Screening to School-Entry Requirements
Nebraska legislators consider a first-in-the-nation mandate to assess all children for autism before the start of school.
5 min read
Image of a student working with an adult one-on-one.
mmpile/E+
Special Education Florida Changed Rules for Special Education Students. Why Many Say It’s Wrong
The new rule contains a more specific definition of what it means to have a “most significant cognitive disability.”
Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tampa Bay Times
7 min read
Richard Corcoran, the Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education sits next to Florida Department of Education Board Chair Andy Tuck as they listen to speakers during Thursday morning's Florida Department of Education meeting. The board members of the Florida Department of Education met Thursday, June 10, 2021 at the Florida State College at Jacksonville's Advanced Technology Center in Jacksonville, Fla. to take care of routine business but then held public comments before a vote to remove critical race theory from Florida classrooms.
Richard Corcoran, Florida’s education commissioner, and Andy Tuck, the chair of the state’s board of education, listen to speakers at a meeting  in June.
Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP