Funding, Vouchers to Dominate Special Education Debate


Congress will consider forking over an additional $1 billion to the states when lawmakers overhaul education programs for children with mental and physical disabilities this year. But it's a good bet states will still want more.

Count on funding, vouchers and discipline issues to emerge as major sticking points when Congress overhauls the 1975 Individuals with the Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) this spring.

The White House is not expected to expend a great deal of political capital on getting IDEA revamped, not like it did with the new federal education law commonly known as No Child Left Behind. "The president's clout will be used for other issues," said Marie Gryphon, education policy analyst at Cato, a libertarian Washington think tank that supports turning state-run schools into an independent system of schools.

The administration will draw heavily from the findings of the president's commission on special education that released recommendations in the fall of 2002. Among other things, the panel recommended more school choice, better early intervention strategies and more federal funds as long as states are living up to No Child Left Behind.

Here are the hot issues to watch for:

  • Funding Levels. The Bush administration has already indicated it wants Congress to boost funding for special education programs by $1 billion, but that is still nowhere near the level states are eying. 

The administration's proposal is about 19 percent of the total cost of educating children with learning and/or physical problems far below the 40 percent state officials, local school board members and teachers' unions want and say the IDEA law promises the federal government will provide.

"At this rate, it will be 35 years before IDEA is fully funded," Danica Petroshius, education aide for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), said. "A first grader when IDEA was first passed will be 69 years old by the time the Bush administration will have come even close to fully funding special education," she said. The lobbying season for special education opened last year on the funding issue.

Related to how much Congress should provide for IDEA, another issue is a rather technical, but important, budget one: Should IDEA funds come from the "discretionary" pot of money Congress has to divvy up and dole out or the "mandatory" pot that is automatically set aside for government programs such as Social Security.

A slew of groups are lobbying hard for full mandatory funding. The National Governors' Association and the Chief State School Officers issued a joint statement last year calling for full mandatory funding and other changes to IDEA. So did the IDEA Funding Coalition, consisting of 11 groups representing unions, school boards, principals, and special education groups.

The president's commission didn't go for full or mandatory funding and education observers on and off the Hill doubt that many Republicans in this Congress will either.

  • Vouchers. The voucher issue isn't new, but it's expected to have a higher profile in this round of IDEA reauthorization. The issue has always resonated with many House Republicans, but this time proponents have a new advocate: Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a voucher supporter, now chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, the panel that will shepherd IDEA overhaul in the Senate. When Sen. Kennedy chaired that panel, vouchers were not an issue.

The president's commission specifically included recommendations aimed at giving parents tax dollars to place their special education children in non-public schools. Look for pro-voucher advocates to push a program that they view as successful in Florida, called the McKay scholarships program. "The McKay program is very popular," Cato's Gryphon said, and has a track record, she said.

Teachers unions and other opponents of vouchers oppose that idea, saying, among other things, that voucher programs lack accountability and offer no guarantee that the federal and state civil rights afforded under IDEA would follow the students to the private schools that the parents selected.

"If there's a clamoring for reform via vouchers, it's certainly not coming from the vast majority of parents whose children are IDEA students," said NEA lobbyist Kim Anderson.

  • Discipline. Another thorny question is how to best deal with special education students who are violent, dangerous or break certain rules. Right now, for example, a special education student who brings a gun to school can be suspended for up to 45 days while a general education student who arrives at school with a gun faces an automatic one-year suspension.

Unions want to make sure special education students who are removed from school for serious discipline infractions still receive some kind of schooling. Otherwise, "the problem isn't solved, it's just temporarily moved into the street," said Patti Ralabate, a special education specialists at NEA and a former speech and language pathologist.

Special education advocates also are concerned about opening up to wide interpretation the kinds of things that trigger suspensions for special education students. "Disruptive behavior" is too vague, advocates said, and could be used as an easy way to get rid of problem students.

Identifying which children are disabled early and accurately is expected to be another mainstay theme for the administration. Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst for education at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said she hoped Congress would hone in on better early intervention programs and more choice for parents.

And all sides agree that something should be done to tame IDEA's bureaucratic mess that frustrate parents and teachers. "This law was originally designed to pit parents against schools," said Bruce Hunter, director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators, a trade group that lobbies for school administrators. "It's time to make it less adversarial."

IDEA is a top education priority for the GOP-controlled Congress this year. Both chambers held a series of hearings on IDEA in the last session; so much of the legwork is already done. House and Senate staffers are shooting to complete legislation by the Easter recess in April, but most observers say that timeframe is too optimistic since so many controversial issues will surface during the debate.

Staffers on both sides said they hope Congress can work on IDEA in the same way that the two chambers and two parties worked together to craft a compromise on No Child Left Behind. But many observers predict that is unlikely. "I don't believe the same kind of consensus exists regarding the reauthorization of IDEA" as it did for No Child Left Behind, Hunter of the school administrators said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said the administration's "four pillars" for IDEA reauthorization are the same tenets that the administration laid out for No Child Left Behind: stronger accountability for results; more flexibility for states; concentrating education dollars to proven research-based programs; and more choice for parents.


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