New Ways to Aid Special Kids

A 1975 federal law designed to help special-needs children obtain an appropriate education received a boost last week, when the House passed a badly needed update.

A key provision in the revised Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) would allow better and more-definitive ways to identify students with disabilities. For too long, special-needs departments have been clogged with kids who may need extra attention but don't warrant the funding and staff time required by students with more-profound needs.

The bill also reduces the amount of paperwork - long a complaint of teachers, administrators, and parents - and encourages mediation and arbitration as a way to reduce the number of court battles between parents and their school districts.

The House defeated a controversial proposal to provide vouchers that would allow special-needs children to attend private schools. That's too bad. Such students come with a range of disabilities, and parents need flexibility to find the best educational environment for their children, especially when public schools vary widely in their compliance with the law.

The House bill would allow schools to suspend or expel special-education students who break the rules without first determining whether their behavior was linked to their disability. Many advocacy groups oppose that measure; supporters says it would provide greater control over students. If the Senate goes along, school staff will need wisdom in dealing with special-needs students whose behavior can be disruptive.

The bill again falls short on funding. When Congress passed the 1975 law, it promised to pick up 40 percent of the costs. Today, it pays only about 18 percent. States are left to pick up the rest - in essence, a huge unfunded mandate. The new bill aims to bring federal funding to the full 40 percent, but that percentage was not made mandatory this time.

When the Senate votes on this new IDEA, it should require the full 40 percent share. Almost 30 years after the program began, it's about time.

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