A Battle of IDEAs

Susan Phillips
June 15, 2003
Connect for Kids' executive editor, Susan Phillips
Connect for Kids' former executive editor , Susan Phillips

For 28 years, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, has been the main federal law articulating and protecting the rights of students with disabilities to an appropriate public education.

In those years, the world of special education has been transformed, with more special education children moving into regular classrooms, improved teaching, and new technology. IDEA has played a role in all of that progress.

Two IDEAs:

The text of HR 1350, passed by the House.

The text of the Senate bill, S 1248.


But there's another side to IDEA: the law is so hard to comply with and so lacking in accountability measures that one study estimated 90 percent of school districts were not in compliance. That's got to be bad for kids. And for school administrators, it's the equivalent of walking around with big fat "Sue Me" signs stuck to their backs.

Meanwhile, chronic under-funding of the law by Congress has set up a grinding, ongoing battle for resources between two classes of students: disabled students with Individual Education Programs, and regular education students.

Congress now has a chance to address some of IDEA's problems. The House has already passed a Republican-backed bill. The Senate is about to take up its own bill, introduced on June 12 by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The Senate bill is a bipartisan effort, unveiled by Chairman Judd Gregg, R-NH and ranking minority member Senator Edward Kennedy, D-MA, at a joint briefing. The Senate bill is on the agenda for the June 25 meeting of the HELP Committee, and the committee is seeking comments from all interested parties.

How to Be Heard:

The HELP Committee has established a special temporary e-mail account for comments on the bill idea_feedback@labor.senate.gov; and a dedicated fax at 202-228-0929, both active only through June 20, 2003.

Here's contact information for all senators on the HELP committee, from a parent-created Web site

Judd and Kennedy both have said they would like to see fairly quick Senate action on the full bill.

Both bills propose a number of changes in the areas of discipline, parent's rights to sue, paperwork reduction (special educators spend up to 1-1/2 days per week filling out paperwork), and teacher qualifications. The House bill also proposes—but does not guarantee—a schedule of funding increases designed to bring federal funding up to 40 percent of the costs of educating special needs students.

The bipartisan nature of the Senate bill is evident in the way its approach reflects a more careful effort to balance the interests of students, parents, teachers, and schools. One example: while the House would cap fees for parents' attorneys and set a one-year deadline for the filing of complaints, the Senate does not cap fees and sets a more generous two-year deadline. But, in a demonstration of the limits of bipartisanship these days, it doesn't address the biggest issue, which is funding. That battle will be left for the full Senate.

How big an issue is it? Federal spending on special education has risen to $8.9 billion in recent years, up from $2 billion in the early 1990s. And still the federal contribution only covers about 18 percent of the costs—meaning states are spending another $142 billion or so.

It's awfully hard to get past that to the other proposed changes—some promising, some disturbing—in the House and Senate bills.

Still, dozens of groups, covering the alphabet from the American Assocation of School Administrators up to Wrightslaw, a special education law and advocacy Web site, have weighed in. And the proposed changes are important.

A Range of Views:

Responses to the Senate bill were still being formulated by many groups when this information was gathered.

Our Children Left Behind is a parent-created web site taking a critical view of HR1350, especially changes in discipline, the IEP process, due process.

The American Association of School Administrators issued this statement in support of HR1350.

The Council for Exceptional Children was one of dozens of groups to oppose HR 1350 as an attack on the rights of disabled children.

Kids Together put together a comprehensive list of organizations opposed to the bill.

The President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education issued a report in 2002 outlining findings and recommendations on changing special education.


To give just one example: Both bills would give states the ability to spend up to 15 percent of their federal special education funding on services for children who are struggling in school, but don't have a diagnosed disability.

The idea is that schools would be better able to help children who are struggling in some aspect of their schooling—reading, behavior, math, whatever—before they fail, before they are held back, before they decide that they are stupid, or school sucks. For many of these kids, quality early intervention could mean they won't ever need an IEP.

But many parents and members of the disability community are opposed—and for good reason. Until there's a commitment to properly fund the law, anything that diverts federal money away from students with IEPs—presumably the ones most in need of help—reduces the resources available for those kids.

All that anxiety over money obscures the fact that, as Senator Kennedy remarked when briefing reporters on the bill, IDEA is as much a civil rights law as it is an education law. There is no bright line dividing regular education students from their special education peers. Instead there is a continuum of children, each a mosaic of strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Now that IDEA has brought so many children out of special education classrooms, this is understood by children, and lived by them in their classrooms, playgrounds and social lives.

The most important changes to the IDEA would be those that build on that understanding, and that put parents, teachers, and school administrators more clearly on the same side in the effort to help all children achieve.

Talk Back

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