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 Article of Interest - IDEA Reauthorization

Special education may get overhaul
Better intervention, identification at heart of proposed bill
CNN, March 19, 2003
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Millions of children in special education would face earlier help, tougher academic standards and overhauled screening to determine if they are truly disabled under a proposed retooling of the program.

Republican House education leaders will present on Wednesday an update to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 1975 law that promised appropriate education for all. The law's reauthorization is seen by educators as the most significant school project facing Congress this year.

Roughly 6.3 million children receive special help, and their education affects all classrooms as schools deal with teacher training, shortfalls of money and student discipline.

"We must ensure that children with disabilities are given access to an education that maximizes their unique abilities, and provides them with the tools for later success," said bill sponsor Rep. Mike Castle, R-Delaware, chairman of the House Education reform subcommittee.

The House bill focuses on early help for struggling students and better identification of true disability. It would eliminate the use of an IQ test that measures the gap between intelligence and achievement, one that critics say is fundamentally flawed and withholds help until a student fails.

Democrats disagree over such issues as spending and student discipline, where battle lines probably will be drawn in both chambers.

"They are breaking their word on special education funding, just as they broke their promise to provide schools the resources they promised when we enacted the 'No Child Left Behind Act,"' said Rep. George Miller of California, ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Senate education leaders expect to introduce a bipartisan bill next month, but fights are expected over spending and private-school vouchers for disabled children. Although the House bill was not expected to include a voucher provision, proponents might try to add one.

Shrink paperwork, increase accountability

From less paperwork to greater accountability, the bill was generally embraced by special-education advocates. But they also were unimpressed by promised increases in federal money and wary of offering support until firm details emerge.

A central aim of the bill is to keep more students from getting into special education. Thousands are misidentified, education officials say, including students with basic reading difficulties and a disproportionate number of minority students.

"It's the right thing to do to identify problems early on," said James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. For example, students could get reading help in kindergarten or first grade rather than grades 3 or 4.

"It means those students will not have to experience that cycle of frustration and failure that leads to a whole host of poor educational outcomes," Wendorf said.

The bill would shrink paperwork and the frequency of student reporting for teachers, chores considered so cumbersome that they drive teachers out of special education.

"It's not the paperwork, per se. It's the time it takes away from teaching and learning. We're very interested in seeing that change," said Bill East, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

'No Child Left Behind'

Most children with disabilities spend much of their time in a typical classroom, and the bill recognizes the importance of training all teachers, said Patti Ralabate, a special education expert for the National Education Association.

The special education law would be aligned with "No Child Left Behind," the education law that demands better performance of students, teachers and schools.

"We want that inclusion," Wendorf said. "It's only by being included that our students won't be shunted aside or forgotten."

Under President Bush, the government's main spending on special education has hit its highest level, $8.5 billion, but that remains far short of the contribution Congress promised years ago. The bill would increase federal spending from 18 percent to 40 percent of the per-student cost within seven years, but that money would be discretionary, meaning no guarantees.

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