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Article of Interest - IDEA Reauthorization

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Bridges4Kids LogoHope Follows Special-ed Act
by Kathleen D. Bailey, Portsmouth Herald, December 26, 2004
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U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, recently helped craft a bipartisan agreement to improve federal special-education laws.

 
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) revises the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was established circa 1990 and last updated in 1997.

Some area special-education directors are skeptical about the bill’s promise to "put the federal government on a glide path to full funding."

The original IDEA promised the federal government would provide 40 percent of the funding for special education; it has yet to reach that proportion.

But educators agreed other facets, such as strategies to reduce paperwork, will get them and their teachers back where they belong: with the kids.

Paperwork

"We’re still trying to digest it," Pat Dowey, director of special education for the Exeter Region Cooperative School District, said of IDEIA.

But Dowey has already found several things she likes.

"One step forward is that the Department of Education is going to design one set of parental procedural safeguards for the country," she said.

Before, every state designed its own.

Procedural safeguards, Dowey explained, are also called "parental rights." They’re the rights of parents to due process - to have their child educated and to advocate for their child.

Rules vary from state to state, she said.

For example, Michigan is required to educate a child with a disability until the age of 26. But New Hampshire is only required to educate a child to the age of 21, the same as the minimum age in the federal standards.

"Many states have rules that exceed the federal guidelines," she said.

The Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, has also been inconsistent, Dowey said.

In New Hampshire, every district has its own version of this document, an education plan designed to help the individual child achieve. Standardizing the form will benefit everyone, she said.

Paulette Hoefrich, special-education director for SAU 52 in Portsmouth, also likes the idea of a standard IEP form.

"We have all these districts that have all different formats," she said. "It’s all the information we need to have, but in different formats. If a child moves from Exeter to Portsmouth, there’s a bit of reorientation there."

"There will be more consistency for the family, the child and the school," Dowey agreed.

According to Dowey, the original IDEA mandated parents receive a copy of the procedural safeguards document every time there was a "team" meeting regarding their child.

"It was 13 pages that had to be copied every time," she said.

Under IDEIA, parents only receive this document once a year unless they have a complaint or request a copy.

The revised law will also save time and money in the alteration of an IEP. Formerly, the parents and teachers had to meet to change an IEP. Now, they can discuss the changes by letter, e-mail or a conference call, Dowey said.

According to Hoefrich, "Paying people to stay after school to do paperwork is not the best use of time or money. They could be working with the kids instead."

Legal issues

Another piece of the legislation attempts to reduce "frivolous" lawsuits by holding attorneys liable for "frivolous, improper and unnecessarily prolonged lawsuits," and enables both parents and school districts to be able to collect the cost of attorneys’ fees.

"Unfortunately, there have been cases where parents file frivolous claims in an attempt to see the school district say it’s not worth the time or the money to fight it," Dowey said.

"In her 18 years with SAU 16, she hasn’t seen too many of these.

"But nationwide, there are examples of parents who used litigation to try and get what they wanted," she said.

Dowey characterized "frivolous" lawsuits as those lacking substance, or used as a nuisance.

The IDEIA has made a provision that if a hearing officer finds a claim "frivolous," the parents could be responsible for paying their own attorneys’ fees. Before, the school district was responsible for paying all the attorneys’ fees, whether or not it won the case.

This provision, called "Attorney Fee Reimbursement," has been in the IDEA since it was revised in 1997.

"Now there is more risk to parents who try to use the legislative process to get what they want," Dowey said.

Funding

Dowey laughed when asked if she thought she’d ever see the 40 percent federal funding.

"I’m young and I’m an optimist," she said.

While she isn’t making any plans based on more money, she said the reduction of paperwork and tightening up on lawsuits would reduce some costs for her district.

Hoefrich said more money is desperately needed and is the big issue with IDEIA.

"Will the government fund us the way they said they would? When IDEA was passed in 1997, they said they’d fund it 40 percent. It’s 17 percent now, and they’ve been creeping up to that."

There is extreme stress on a district to make all the components of special education come together without funding, Hoefrich observed.

"The document itself is not bad, but it basically comes down to the fact that it’s not funded," she said.

As part of IDEIA, 15 states will participate in an "incentive" program to create ways to reduce paperwork, Dowey said.

"It’s an incentive to look at just how much paper is generated," she said. "We can simplify the process, but still maintain a child’s civil rights."

    

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