Despite opposition from nearly every national parent and advocacy organization, and many teacher groups, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1350 in April to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
IDEA is considered a civil rights act for children with disabilities because it guarantees a free, appropriate public education. Originally passed in 1975, it affects 6.5 million American children. Before the IDEA, many children with disabilities were shut away at home or institutionalized; today, with IDEA, they receive the education and skills needed to be productive members of the community.
H.R. 1350 is controversial because it rewrites sections of the current law and deletes many provisions that are thought to protect the rights of children with disabilities. Anxiety among parents and advocates increased when the House did not make significant amendments to the original bill and placed it on a fast track for passage.
The action now moves to the Senate. During a meeting held May 21 with representatives from the disability and education communities, staff members from the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee indicated that the bill would likely be introduced during the week of June 2. Once introduced, there is a two-week public comment period before the committee will act on the bill. The full Senate may consider the bill before the end of June. HELP staff members stated that the goal is to craft a bipartisan bill, but did not provide any details of what may be included in or excluded from it.
Historically, IDEA has been reauthorized on a strong bipartisan basis. Families and advocates hope that this year’s reauthorization process will follow suit. Children who benefit from IDEA cross all political parties, races, ethnicities, religions, income levels and geographical areas.
Families of children with disabilities say the House bill is a threat to progress brought about by IDEA. One provision in the bill significantly changes the Individualized Education Program (IEP). It phases out short-term objectives that measure a student’s progress. House members say that standard report cards can do that, but parents say that report cards do not provide the level of detail needed to measure progress.
The House bill also allows an IEP to cover three years instead of one. The intent is to reduce paperwork for teachers, but parents and advocates are concerned about whether a three-year-old IEP is appropriate for a rapidly changing child. While the provision is optional, some parents may not know they can opt for an annual IEP. They also worry that families desiring an annual IEP may be encouraged to use a three-year plan instead.
In another effort to reduce paperwork, the House bill authorizes a ten-state demonstration project to reduce IDEA related paperwork. While parents and advocates often support efforts to reduce paperwork, they are concerned that this provision would allow the government to waive any IDEA law or regulation without a process of public review.
Furthermore, the House bill gives schools unilateral authority to discipline students with disabilities for violating a code of student conduct policy, without considering if the disability is a factor in the behavior. It allows schools to put students into “interim alternative placements” for as many as 45 school days without an expedited appeal process. For example, a student with Tourette’s syndrome could be sent to an alternative placement for verbal outbursts even though he couldn’t control himself. For certain behaviors, the placement can extend beyond 45 days. In addition, the schools would no longer need to develop behavior plans for students who need them. School administrators and others say that current IDEA discipline requirements are confusing and hard to implement. Parents and advocates are concerned that children will be punished for behaviors that are related to their disabilities. They prefer that schools work with them to develop and implement positive behavior intervention plans.
The bill also changes parent notification requirements and procedures that safeguard students. It creates steps before parents can pursue due process and adds a one-year statute of limitations for filing a due process request. Families and advocates are concerned that these changes, if passed into law, will result in more litigation between parents and schools.
According to the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, in the year 2000, out of about 6.5 million children receiving special education services there were 3,020 due process hearings held throughout the nation. Most parents wish to resolve problems quickly and efficiently and tend to give schools the benefit of the doubt. They usually pursue conciliation, mediation and other dispute resolution techniques before seeking due process. With a one-year statute of limitations, there are concerns that parents will forego these alternative options because the time line is too short to file, if necessary, for a due process hearing later.
In the area of funding, the House bill continues to fund IDEA on a discretionary basis and does not authorize full funding at this time. When IDEA was first passed, Congress promised to fund 40 percent of special education service costs. The federal government now pays about 18 percent with states and local school districts financing the remainder. With local districts facing financial pressures, parents and advocates are concerned that special education services will be cut in an effort to balance budgets.
Parents and advocates from across the country are contacting their U.S. senators to express concerns about the House bill and to encourage them to pass a strong bipartisan IDEA reauthorization bill that does not weaken the rights of children with disabilities.