Special Education

Special Education Taxis Up Congress’ Runway

By Lisa Fine — January 23, 2002 10 min read
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For special education professionals, the rewards are many. So are the complaints.

It’s hard to find and keep certified teachers. Paperwork and red tape leave educators feeling swamped. When it’s time for statewide tests, decisions about the inclusion of special education students often perplex school officials.

Frontline feedback such as this is pouring into Washington from administrators, policymakers, and teachers who want changes in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The historic 1975 law that guaranteed the right of students with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education is up for renewal by Congress this year.

With the legislative runway now cleared of the recently signed Elementary and Secondary Education Act, lawmakers on Capitol Hill face what may prove to be the most contentious IDEA reauthorization in the law’s history.

Moves in Congress for a dramatic hike in special education funding and for new disciplinary rules for students with disabilities sparked debate during the overhaul of the ESEA. Now both issues, which fell out of the final version of that bill, promise to resurface in the IDEA process.

Meanwhile, the concerns emerging from educators on the ground will jostle for attention with such hotly debated topics already identified by the Bush administration and federal legislators.

“The rank-and-file teachers are unhappy with IDEA,” said Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. “They feel like the exact nature of the law is about paperwork. The specifics of that are going to become known.” No congressional hearings had been scheduled as of last week. But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairmen of the Senate and House education committees respectively, have said they expect the hearings to start this month or in February.

“We expect the reauthorization to be a comprehensive process that addresses all of the issues involved—including IDEA reform as well as the funding inequities in the current system,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. Boehner.

“Establishing an artificial timeline for completion is a bad idea,” he said. “What’s important is the policy that comes out of the process at the end.”

Getting Under Way

About six million of the nation’s schoolchildren, or some 12 percent, were enrolled in special education programs as of 1998, the last year for which data was available. The IDEA gave children with disabilities access to public schools, which in some cases previously had refused to educate them or did not do so properly. The law—originally called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act—also required schools to provide students with disabilities educational services, including specialized instruction, as well as related services such as busing to and from school.

Education group officials hope that this year’s process of revising the IDEA will be shorter than some previous efforts. The last time Congress undertook a reauthorization of the IDEA, in 1994, it was a politically bruising process that lasted three years. School districts are still trying to implement the new regulations from the law enacted in 1997, educators say.

“We ought to be able to do this in six months,” Mr. Hunter said. “But then we should have been able to do ESEA in six months.”

The revision of the flagship K-12 legislation also took nearly three years, spanning the last years of the Clinton administration and the first year of President Bush’s term.

Referring to the last IDEA reauthorization, Mr. Hunter said: “If the same poisonous atmosphere exists, it may take three years again. I have to hope that cooler heads prevail this time.”

Some say the upcoming process might go much faster because the Bush administration has already signaled its intention to address certain issues. Secretary of Education Rod Paige testified to Congress in October about a need to reduce the number of minority children identified for special education. Studies, including one from the National Research Council released last week, have shown that black students are disproportionately placed in special education compared with white students.

“The administration is already focused on special education,” said Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, a national advocacy group for special education and gifted students, based in Arlington, Va. “That will help drive this process.”

The administration has held seven public forums around the country to gather suggestions from the special education community and the public about potential changes in the IDEA. At the forums on his “listening tour,” Robert Pasternack, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services sometimes conducted unscientific surveys of special educators using an informal applause-o-meter.

Mr. Pasternack at a Dec. 6 forum: “How many think IDEA is too complicated?” (Thunderous applause.)

Mr. Pasternack: “How many think it is not complicated enough?” (Minimal applause.)

In addition to public comment, two reports that will be released this spring will likely help shape the Bush administration’s proposal for IDEA changes as well as congressional versions of the bill.

The President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, a panel convened to review federal, state, and local programs, is scheduled to produce a report by mid-summer with recommendations on fixing problems in special education. And the National Academy of Sciences is likely to release by May a two-year study on the disproportionate number of minority students in special education.

Questions of Money

Weary from the protracted haggling of the ESEA reauthorization, one source said, the education movers and shakers in Congress may be inclined to catch their breath for a few months before taking on the difficult process of rejiggering the IDEA.

Ms. Van Kuren said that the last overhaul expanded the IDEA’s scope, from merely helping students with disabilities obtain access to an education to actually improving their educational services. But she said the 2002 process will be even more complicated because members of Congress will simultaneously try to tack on new improvements to educational services, revamp what is not working from the last overhaul, and address several emerging issues.

“In some cases, it’s not really fair to judge what is working yet,” Ms. Van Kuren said. “But there are some things that there are clear problems with.”

For many educators and advocates, the most critical issue is the need for more federal funding of special education. Without more money from Washington through the years, they argue, states and school districts have been forced to cut other programs to pay special education costs. In other cases, school districts have had to raise local taxes.

When the IDEA was first passed in 1975, the federal government said it would subsidize the added cost of providing appropriate services for special education students by kicking in up to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil cost of educating students overall. School districts, under that arrangement, would pay 100 percent of overall per-pupil costs for special education students, then get an additional 40 percent from the federal government.

Some characterize that as a federal promise to pay what amounts to 29 percent of the total cost of special education; others see it as a goal or even a ceiling for the federal commitment.

Either way, Congress has never come close to the 40 percent subsidy. Lawmakers and educators commonly refer to that elusive 40 percent as “full funding.” Right now, school districts on average receive a subsidy from the federal government of about 15 percent.

But never in recent years has there been so much momentum in Congress for “full funding.” The debate over whether to bring federal special education funding up to the 40 percent mark by fiscal 2007 and to make such funding mandatory, rather than subject to the political vagaries of the appropriations process each year, was at least one factor that delayed passage of the ESEA.

The lawmakers who voted against a last-ditch amendment offered in the ESEA conference committee by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa—one that would have more than doubled federal special education funding by 2007—said they did not oppose full funding. Instead, they said, that kind of money should be tied to reform of the IDEA.

Advocates say they plan to continue pressing for full funding over the coming months—or more—of IDEA hearings and negotiations.

“The problems we have in special education are about money,” Sen. Harkin contended. “We need more money in classrooms, facilities, training, and early-reading problems.”

Full-funding supporters differ over how aid recipients should be allowed to use the added federal money. Should schools be required to use the influx of funds to supplement money already being spent on special education? Or should they be able to supplant state and local special education funding with the additional federal dollars, thus freeing up homegrown money for other purposes?

When the IDEA originally became law, a provision prohibited the federal aid from taking the place of existing special education spending, so that schools wouldn’t reduce their own contributions once the new money arrived from Washington. But during the reauthorization completed in 1997, the law was changed to allow 20 percent of new federal funding to be used for other purposes.

Some advocates say that without strict rules requiring schools to use the bulk of the new federal aid for special education, schools would divert the money to other needs.

Discipline and Paperwork

Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., stirred up a long-standing debate last year when he proposed an amendment to the ESEA to allow teachers to discipline a special education student in the same manner as a general education student. Under his proposal, schools would have had the freedom to punish special education students through suspension or expulsion if they committed a serious infraction, such as weapons or drug possession or aggravated assault. Current law limits such suspensions to 10 days, unless the transgression is unrelated to the student’s disability.

The Norwood amendment made it into the House version of the ESEA, but the House-Senate conference committee did not approve it. Current law requires that special education students who commit disciplinary infractions receive instruction in alternative schools rather than being sent home. Discipline was also the subject of contention during the last IDEA reauthorization.

Several other issues are likely to have a prominent place in the IDEA debate.

A recurring complaint from school administrators, for instance, has been that school districts have difficulty recruiting and retaining special education teachers. Districts already compete with each other for certified special education teachers. And with the increasing number of students identified as needing special education, the demand for qualified special education teachers is likely to increase.

Then there’s testing. The revised ESEA requires annual testing in grades 3 to 8, leaving educators to ponder just what that will mean for special education students. Some say assessments are not appropriate for special education students who aren’t working on grade level. Others say it will give a much-needed element of accountability to special education.

“I’d be surprised if testing doesn’t turn out to be a big issue,” Mr. Hunter said. A frequent complaint from teachers, meanwhile, is that the IDEA has forced them to become amateur lawyers.

Jennifer Enk, a special education teacher for Shelby County Schools in Millington, Tenn., says the process of following the law’s many regulations is taking the joy out of teaching for her. She says most of her time is dedicated to drawing up individualized education plans, or IEPs, the required annual educational road maps for special education students that set goals for the school year.

“The past semester, as well as the past five years of my teaching, tell a tale of the crushing of enthusiasm,” Ms. Enk said in a recent interview. “I love to teach. It is my life’s passion, my gift and mission.

“However, I no longer teach,” she continued. “I attend IEP meetings. I fill out paperwork. I write IEPs. I assess students. I fill out functional-behavior assessments. I write behavior plans.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as Special Education Taxis Up Congress’ Runway

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