Canton Repository

April 30, 2003

Opponents say special education bill would do harm

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — A proposal to reauthorize the federal special-education law is drawing criticism from a wide range of groups representing students with disabilities, their parents and others.

“The bad outweighs the good” in the bill, said James H. Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. He and other opponents of the legislation gathered on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to try to influence lawmakers on the eve of the debate, scheduled for today.

But at least one Ohio lawmaker is impressed with the proposal, which many expect the House will pass.

“I think they’ve done a good job,” said Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township. “I think they’ve hit some of the problems that now exist.”

The bill would reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which governs education for 6.5 million special-needs students. The Senate is working on its own version of the legislation, which would have to be reconciled with the House version.

Supporters say the bill would reduce the paperwork burden on teachers, make it possible to identify children with disabilities more quickly, and align the law with the No Child Left Behind revamp of public education approved by Congress in 2001.

“Since 1995, Congress has nearly tripled federal spending for special education,” said Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., sponsor of the bill. He contends the legislation would put Congress on track to pay the full 40 percent of the cost in seven years.

Although current law authorizes funding up to 40 percent, the federal government never has paid near that amount. The government this year provided $8.9 billion to states, covering 18 percent of the cost of special education.

Critics say the bill fails to provide enough money for special education, deprives students with disabilities of civil rights and could undermine their education.

Among the complaints is that the proposal would end the requirement for a yearly planning session to evaluate a student’s progress and update his or her individualized education plan. The student’s teacher, parents and others typically participate in the meeting.

The Castle bill gives parents the option of limiting planning meetings to once every three years. Stephen Spector, policy director for Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, fears that some parents will feel pressured to give up yearly planning meetings in the interest of reducing paperwork for teachers.

They would not “really know what they’re giving up,” he said. Advocates for students with disabilities say they need planning meetings at least yearly to make sure they are getting individualized, appropriate instruction.

“Students with disabilities who do not experience success drop out,” Spector said.

The bill also would replace the current disciplinary procedure, which takes into account a student’s disability, with a single policy applying to all students.

Critics say it would allow schools to expel students whose disruptions result from their disabilities without determining what role the disability played. For example, a student with attention-deficit disorder could be expelled for repeatedly getting out of his seat, they say.

Changing the rules on discipline would “strip away some key civil rights of students with disabilities,” Wendorf said.

Regula, who supports the bill, said it would make it harder to assign students to special education who do not have a disability but just need extra help.

“It puts emphasis on preventive programs, trying to keep people in the regular program as much as possible rather than using (special education) as a catch-all,” he said.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-St. Clairsville, also planned to vote for the bill.

Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, needed to study it some more. Discussing the discipline provision, he said it should be possible to “strike a reasonable balance between the safety and security and good order of the classroom and the particular needs of a child whose behavior is the result of an identified disability.”

Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Lorain, was leaning against the legislation. Among his objections was that it does not provide enough funds for special education.