'Modest' Changes Seen for Special Education
by Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times, September 28, 2002
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— A year ago, Republicans and Democrats seemed to be girding
for a showdown over special education.
Prompted by the White House refusal to pay the full federal
share of special education costs, Senator James M. Jeffords,
the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee,
quit his party and became an independent, swinging power in
the Senate to the Democrats. Advocates for disabled children
feared that a presidential commission on special education
would issue not a report, but a withering critique tearing
special education to shreds.
But as the House and Senate prepare to take up reauthorization
of the special education law early next year, members of each
party appear to have climbed down from the ramparts, and their
talk is more of consensus than conflict. Rather than reinvent
special education with a raft of tough new federal laws, as
they did for general education last year, lawmakers are
talking of compromise and a piecemeal approach to change.
"The temperature's been lowered quite a bit," said
Representative George Miller of California, the ranking
Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Given the sweeping changes to elementary and secondary
education in the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Miller
predicted that the coming changes to special education "will
be more modest."
While neither the Bush administration nor lawmakers have
entirely embraced the presidential commission's report, which
was released in July, its suggestions have become the
springboard for discussions among policy makers about the
future of special education, which serves 6.5 million children
nationally at a cost of $78 billion a year.
"We're too focused on the process, and not enough on outcome,"
said Robert H. Pasternack, the federal assistant secretary for
special education, echoing the report.
The report concluded that while the 1975 special education law
succeeded in establishing the right to an education for all
disabled children, the quality of the instruction was often
poor. Misidentification of children was common, and education
plans were largely driven by the fear of lawsuits.
The commission proposed treating all but the most severely
handicapped children as general education students who need
extra services, rather than as a separate category of children
The report builds on last year's education law, which requires
disabled students to take the same standardized tests as other
students. Schools where most disabled children chronically
fail to make adequate progress on those tests face severe
penalties that could include closing them down.
While teaching handicapped and nondisabled children in the
same classrooms, known as mainstreaming, is not new, the
current discussions seek to break down other barriers
separating the two groups.
In Long Beach, Calif., a model of the administration's goals,
teachers assigned to handicapped children coach all students
who appear to be having trouble.
The approach is best summed up by Judy Elliott, who has
retooled Long Beach's special education system in her three
years as assistant superintendent.
"If you focus on educating the kids," Dr. Elliott said,
"compliance will take care of itself."
Advocacy groups support the report's call for getting help to
children earlier, but say they are concerned by some of its
other recommendations. They criticized the commission for its
silence on what is becoming the thorniest issue among
lawmakers and advocates: how to handle handicapped students
who act up in class. One proposal in Congress would remove
special protections for handicapped children, allowing schools
to swiftly expel those who are disruptive.
Paul Marchand, head of the national Association for Retarded
Citizens, said he was dismayed that the commission did not
support full federal financing for special education, but that
it did propose a voucher system for handicapped students.
"Where is the money going to come from?" Mr. Marchand asked.
Nevertheless, the call for vouchers, which would allow
disabled children to attend private schools at will, appears
to be losing support.
Representative Michael N. Castle, Republican of Delaware, said
that special education law already allows parents to send
handicapped children to private schools at public expense, if
the public schools cannot provide services the children need.
Despite support in the House and the Senate for gradually
raising the federal contribution to special education to the
40 percent maximum level cited in the current law, the
administration has so far balked. Instead, it has asked for a
$1 billion increase for special education in next year's
budget, to $8.5 billion, promoting it as the largest
single-year increase in special education aid.
The commission also proposed a federal pool of money to pay
for severely disabled children, whose education costs up to
$100,000 a year, and can break a small school district's
budget — an idea that Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the
ranking Republican on the Senate education committee, said
"makes a lot of sense" for small states.
Dr. Elliott contends that vouchers would be disastrous for
Long Beach and many other districts. In general, private
special education services cost slightly more than twice as
much as the same services in a public school setting.
When Dr. Elliott came to Long Beach three years ago, she set
about redesigning the special education program from the
classroom up. She moved Long Beach away from what is commonly
called the "waiting to fail" model, which assesses children
only after they have failed for several years, instead getting
tutoring and other intensive help to them in the earliest
Long Beach created classes with intensive instruction in
reading and math for handicapped and general education
Rodney Prince, a special education teacher at Jane Addams
Elementary here, said his official caseload was a dozen
handicapped children. He used to pull them out of the
classrooms to work on reading. Now, he and other special
education teachers go into classrooms that mix general and
special education students. "I work with a hundred kids," he
said. "Whoever's having trouble."
The changes have won the grudging respect of some parents,
bruised by years of having to fight administrators for
"I won't give you 100," Tuesday Miles, whose son has cerebral
palsy, told Dr. Elliott in a meeting with parents recently,
"but I'll give you an 80."