In early December the Senate adjourned from the first session of the 108th Congress without taking floor action on the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is often referred to as the civil rights act for students with disabilities because it mandates the right to a free and appropriate public education. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed the IDEA Reauthorization Bill (S.1248) on June 25, 2003.
Senate leaders have reached an agreement, which allows the bill to move to the floor, while considering a minimum number of amendments. While the exact date of floor action is unknown, some capitol observers believe it may be considered soon after the Senate re-convenes on January 20, 2004. Others believe that the bill may be held up to deal with other matters and could potentially be postponed until after the 2004 elections.
According to the Senate agreement, eight floor amendments will be offered. The most significant appear to be those that deal with limiting reimbursement of attorney fees when parents prevail in due process hearings; funding (2 separate amendments); and reducing paperwork. The Republicans and Democrats will each be given one other slot to offer amendments that are unspecified at this time.
The House IDEA reauthorization bill passed in the Spring, despite the opposition of virtually every national disability parent and advocacy organization. Many in the disability community believe that the Senate bill, while better than the House bill, contains several provisions which greatly weaken the current IDEA law.
Examples of areas of concern are as follows:
The bill eliminates short-term objectives in Individual Education Programs (IEP). Parents, most teachers and special education administrators agree that short-term objectives are essential in determining whether students are making progress on their IEP goals and determining future steps in reaching goals. Many believe that while report cards are valuable, the major accountability measure for students with disabilities is the IEP.
The bill creates the option for schools to offer a three-year IEP for students in their final three years of school. There are many states that are producing low quality outcomes for students in the transition years. The Office of Special Education Programs has designated transition services as one area being closely reviewed in its focused monitoring efforts. Many are concerned that giving schools the latitude of using three year IEP’s in the final years, is not likely to produce better post secondary outcomes for students with disabilities.
The Astay put@ provision is further weakened. Since its initial passage, IDEA has mandated a free appropriate public education for all students with disabilities. The 1997 amendments created
an exception for students who are in possession, sale or distribution of illegal drugs, who possess a dangerous weapon, or are determined to be substantially likely to cause injury to self or others.
S. 1248 creates another exception for students who are accused of not adhering to the school code of conduct and for whom it is determined that the disability did not cause the behavior. These students lose their right to Astay put in their current educational placement pending an appeal. When they are transferred to other settings, local schools will not have to count them for purposes of reporting adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. Additionally, the bill changes current law on conducting behavior manifestations, which determine whether adverse behaviors are related to the student’s disability.
If S.1248 passes the Senate, the next step in the process is to appoint a conference committee consisting of Senators and Representatives who are assigned the task of negotiating out the differences between the Senate and House IDEA bills.
Parents, advocates and students with disabilities are encouraged to stay connected to local disability organizations to keep abreast of IDEA reauthorization developments. The disability community will be working to ensure that an already weak Senate bill is not made weaker by the passage of some of the amendments being discussed.
Bob Brick is the Public Policy Director at PACER Center. He can be reached at 952-838-9000 or at [email protected]