Schemo, Diana Jean.
Published: May 14, 2004
In a near-unanimous vote, the Senate on Thursday approved major changes in special education intended to reduce paperwork for teachers, bolster enforcement by state and federal authorities and limit lawsuits by parents seeking help for their children.
The Senate rewrite of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act addresses many of the same issues as a House version approved a year ago, like student discipline, paperwork and parents’ lawsuits, but it provides greater legal protection for disabled students. While groups representing school administrators supported the House version, those representing disabled students condemned it. The Senate bill has won support from both camps.
“This truly is a bipartisan bill,” said Patrisha A. Wright, director of government affairs for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “There are things that school districts love about it, and things they hate. There are things that parents love about it, and things they hate.”
The bill authorizes increases in federal spending on special education over the next six years of up to $2.2 billion a year, but senators rejected an amendment that would have obligated them to finance the full amount. In the past — most contentiously under the No Child Left Behind Act — Congress has spent well below the maximum authorized for educating the poorest children.
The rejected amendment would have meant that 30 years after the special education law was passed, Congress would be fully financing its cost to the states. Under the amendment that won approval, Congress can increase aid but is not obligated to do so. Advocates for disabled children said the amendment, approved 96 to 1, would be of little consequence. ”There’s nothing that gives us any expectation that what hasn’t happened in 30 years is going to happen now,” said Paul Marchand, chief lobbyist for United Cerebral Palsy and the ARC, formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens.
Senator Don Nickles, Republican of Oklahoma, cast the lone vote against the bill.
In other areas, the Senate bill emphasizes new ways to gauge a school’s performance, based more heavily on how well children meet academic goals rather than on how well schools provide individually tailored services. It does away with short-term reports on a child’s advances toward individual goals and substitutes quarterly report cards on more general academic progress.
The bill also encourages federal and state officials to monitor special education closely and to withhold financing to schools if necessary. A recent government survey showed that no state was fully meeting its legal obligation to provide educational services for disabled students.
Less to the liking of advocates for the disabled, the Senate version sets a two-year deadline for parents to file complaints about their children’s education, and a 90-day deadline for filing lawsuits. The Senate version stopped short of permitting governors to set limits on the fees paid to lawyers who successfully represent parents in suits against school districts. The House version permits governors to cap lawyers’ fees.
Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire and chairman of the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, said that while the bill was not perfect, “it’s a very strong step in the right direction.”
Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, also praised the bill, saying it would “substantially strengthen services for students with disabilities, while at the same time protect their rights.”
Democrats said they were concerned that the bill could change drastically in the conference committee, and would seek guarantees before permitting the conference to take it up. While Democrats are the minority, aides said they could use procedural tactics like filibusters.
The differences between the bills are significant. The House version, for example, permits schools to eject children for violations of ”codes of conduct” without demonstrating that their disability did not cause the misbehavior. The Senate would require schools to show that the misconduct was unrelated to the disability.
“We have to have some understanding about where we are,” Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Education Committee’s ranking Democrat, said after the bill’s passage. “We’re firmly rooted, firmly committed, to the Senate approach.”
Democratic aides said there were specific areas where they would seek “pre-conference guarantees,” the thorniest of which involves procedural issues like student discipline, lawyers’ fees and due process for disabled students.
©2004 The New York Times