New plan for special ed funds
White House panel wants range expanded for private services
Michael A. Fletcher,
Saturday, July 6, 2002, San Francisco Gate
-- A presidential commission has recommended that federal special
education funds be allowed to pay for the cost of private services
or even private schools attended by disabled students, as long as
those options are available to other students under state and local
The proposal by the President's Commission on
Excellence in Special Education would significantly expand the range
of private special education services now paid for with public funds
by ensuring that special education money flows to charter schools
and to private schools in districts that already have those
educational options in place.
California voters voted against establishing a
state school voucher system in the November 2000 elections.
Currently, students who attend charter schools or
receive private school vouchers typically do so under a formula that
pays predetermined sums of money per student. Also, local school
systems now often provide limited services for students whose
parents shift them to private schools.
In addition, school districts pay private school
tuitions for students whose special education needs cannot be
accommodated in public schools.
Under the commission's proposal, parents of
special education students in school districts where disabled
students are not making adequate educational progress would also
have the option of using federal money to pay for private services
-- such as speech or occupational therapy -- for their children.
"The commission was concerned that the evolving
forms of choice -- charters,
intradistrict transfers and vouchers -- should not
be impeded by federal special education law," said C. Todd Jones,
the commission's executive director.
The proposal to expand school choice options for
special education students is contained in a larger report that an
Education Department spokesman said is being reviewed by the Bush
"We're concerned that it drains dollars and
resources away from the public school system," said Nancy Reder,
deputy executive director of the National Association of State
Directors of Special Education. "It is particularly acute with
special education because of the high costs involved and the
shortages of personnel."
The 16-member special education commission is
headed by former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, and was
appointed by President Bush in October to develop recommendations
for the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities
Education Act, the landmark federal law guaranteeing a "free
appropriate public education" to the disabled.
Congress is scheduled to begin work on a rewrite
of the law this summer.
Beyond expanding school choice options for special
education students, the panel has recommended that special education
move toward identifying student disabilities earlier and that the
federal government reduce paperwork that burdens special education
In a disappointment to many special education
advocates, the panel did not back a proposal for Congress to provide
a mandatory financing level for special education.
When the law was enacted in 1975, the federal
government pledged to pay 40 percent of its cost but never kept the
promise. Federal funds now cover roughly 15 percent of the costs,
with state and local funds paying the rest, often creating a huge
burden, particularly in cash-strapped school districts.
The commission's report has yet to be embraced by
the White House, and will be the subject of Senate hearing on
Tuesday. One issue certain to arise is the panel's refusal to
recommend that the Bush administration support a mandatory financing