Department of Education officials set a challenging goal for themselves soon after the revised Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act was signed into law in late 2004: complete the regulations in a year’s time to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the law.
The department was generally lauded for holding public hearings before the proposed regulations were released, something new compared with earlier authorizations. Those comments were synthesized into the proposed regulations, which were released last June and have been praised for their clear organization.
At that point, the agency appeared to be on a speedier timetable than after the 1997 reauthorization, when it took two years to release the regulations, to the consternation of special educators and school officials.
But a two-year wait this time around seems possible after all. Special education administrators say they have heard unofficially that the blueprints for enacting the complex special education law may not be available until summer, or even fall.
The department has no official comment. Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman, said only that officials were working “expeditiously” on the final product.
Unlike in 1997, however, the delay doesn’t appear to be prompting widespread serious concern. Many administrators say they’re already moving forward with the information they have on hand.
“We still have a district to run and services to get to kids,” said Judy L. Elliott, the assistant superintendent who oversees special education for the 95,000-student Long Beach, Calif., district.
Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director for public policy at the American Association of School Administrators, said that even though his Arlington, Va.-based organization would have liked the regulations to be completed earlier, he and his colleagues recognize that the process is complicated—and they want the department to get the rules right.
“They’re slower than their timetable, but their timetable was extremely ambitious,” Mr. Hunter said last week. “I don’t think they’re slow. A year from now, I’ll think they’re slow.”
Alexa Posny, the deputy commissioner for learning services for the Kansas education department, said she feels the law was already fairly clear. Within a day of its approval in 2004, she said, she had distributed a Top 10 highlights sheet to special education administrators in the state.
“I don’t view this as hugely problematic,” Ms. Posny said.
Clearing Up Issues
Others have said they’re waiting to see how the Education Department deals with some thorny issues that surfaced during the public-comment period on the law, which Congress first passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The law established a federal guarantee of a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities.
Among other closely watched provisions, the 2004 version of what is now the IDEA changes which district is responsible for providing special education services to students who are placed in private schools by their parents. Before the reauthorization was enacted, the student’s home district was responsible for providing services for that child. Now, the responsibility for evaluating children for special education needs, and providing services, rests with the district where the private school is located, even if the child’s home is far away.
“This is one of the biggest things that is causing us difficulty,” said Christy Chambers, the superintendent of the Special Education District of McHenry County in Woodstock, Ill.
The special education cooperative that Ms. Chambers leads provides training and technical assistance to 18 districts northwest of Chicago. She said the state has offered districts some flexibility for one year. But without the guidance of the regulations, “we’re scrambling,” Ms. Chambers said.
The final regulations will also help with some requirements that might seem more clear-cut, such as timelines for the initial evaluation of students, Ms. Chambers said. The IDEA gives 60 days, unless the state has its own timeline; Illinois allows 60 “school” days, a slightly looser standard. Ms. Chambers said she’s not sure whether to stick to the state law, or to assume that the federal law will take precedence because it is stricter. “These are the kinds of things that, at the local level, you deal with day in and day out,” she said.
Response to Intervention
Another big issue in the new law is the proposed regulations’ focus on “response to intervention,” a teaching method that requires different interventions of increasing intensity for students who may have learning difficulties.
If the interventions aren’t helpful, a child can be referred to special education services. Response to intervention was offered as an alternative method of identifying learning disabilities to the currently used “discrepancy model,” which diagnoses a child with a learning disability if classroom performance does not match his or her tested intelligence. (“RTI Method Gets Boost in Spec. Ed.,” Nov. 30, 2005.)
“Response to intervention is a big thing. A lot of folks are just panicked about it,” said Luann Purcell, the executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education. Her organization and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, in Alexandria, Va., have published a book on the subject. Thousands of copies have been sold, she said.
“That tells you there’s a huge need for information out there about RTI,” Ms. Purcell said, even though many districts may already be following the broad outlines of the proposal.
“It’s just a matter of connecting those who have done it to those who are anxious,” she said.
‘Dose of Reality’
Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents large urban districts, said he hopes the Education Department will allow some time for implementation.
“I think, to some extent, it’s better that they get the regulations right than that they get them in a hurry,” Mr. Simering said. But, he added, “don’t expect us to implement them overnight. I hope they outline some kind of transition.”
Like others, he suggested the department’s early timetable was overly ambitious, perhaps prompted by the delay of the 1997 regulations. “I think,” he said, “they’re getting a dose of reality.”