A special compromise on education

The Senate and House pass new bill for students with disabilities.

Two years after debate in Congress began, the law governing instruction for this country's more than 6 million special-education students is poised to be updated. The House and Senate passed a bill last Friday which aims to improve education for children with learning disabilities.

Rather than a sweeping overhaul, however, more modest changes will be seen in the ways disabled students may be disciplined, the ways that they are identified, and the qualifications required of their teachers. The bill also aims to reduce paperwork and expand support services.

The compromise between the House and Senate is a testament to the strength of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the way in which special-ed has become a feature of the education landscape. Passed in 1975, IDEA requires that students with mental, physical, and emotional disabilities receive the same quality public education as other children. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the Act.]

It's "a strong law in favor of disabled children," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, an independent group in Washington that advocates for public education. For that reason, he says, and because of broad support from "people across the political spectrum and all income groups," it would be difficult to dramatically alter IDEA.

The renewal also calls for the federal government to recommit to covering 40 percent of the cost of special education, a provision that was written into the original law. But federal funding now stands at around 18 percent and has never exceeded that amount. Because full funding is not mandated in the revision, many experts doubt that it will be achieved by 2011, the date Congress has set as its goal.

Some of the most contentious discussion during the renewal process surrounded the question of how children with disabilities should be disciplined.

School administrators and teachers have long expressed frustration over the fact that special-education students have not been held to the same rules of conduct as their general-education peers. But parents and advocates worry that disabled students would be stripped of educational services if schools had too much leeway in determining when to remove a disabled student from the classroom.

The update to the law will treat disabled children more like other students by giving educators more freedom to "exercise reasonable discipline" - with the caveat that students may not be punished for misbehavior related to their disabilities.

Greater effort will also be made to identify students with disabilities earlier than before, says James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Current students have fallen far behind and the "cycle of frustration and failure has set in," making "remediation less effective."

Lawmakers say they hope that by catching struggling students at a younger age, the high number of minority children misidentified as special needs and shunted into special-education programs will be reduced. Fourteen percent of African-American students were enrolled in special-ed programs in 1998, with 2.6 percent identified as mentally retarded, according to the National Research Council. By comparison, 12 percent of white students were in special education, and 1.2 percent were identified as mentally retarded.

But Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., predicts that by removing one of the more rigid criteria for identification, more rather than fewer students will qualify for special education. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized Zirkel's prediction.]

And in an attempt to more closely align the two major education laws, the updated version of IDEA has adopted the No Child Left Behind Act's "highly qualified" teacher requirement. All special-education teachers must, at the very least, hold a certificate in special education.

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