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.”
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