- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2001

To listen to the mutual backslapping from the Bush administration and Congress last week over the passage of an "education reform" bill, one would think that Washington had really hit upon some magical formula that will transform America's educational system into something to be proud of. But there is good reason to be suspicious of the premise underlying the overall bill: that, by throwing billions of additional federal dollars at education and forcing state and local schools to jump through a bunch of new regulatory hoops to get the dough, Washington will magically transform schools into places where Junior learns to read and write, and can even find the United States on a map. But the bill is a cruel hoax in other ways, such as its failure to reform the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal program that is making it virtually impossible to remove chronically disruptive and violent special-education students from the classroom.
IDEA, first enacted in 1975, defines a child with a disability as one with hearing, speech or language impairments; visual impairments; autism; traumatic brain injuries; emotional disturbances or problems with social or emotional development. In most cases, IDEA only permits the removal of disabled students from the classroom "when they cannot be educated in that setting with supplemental aids and services," according to the General Accounting Office. In practice, this has come to mean that schools will do just about anything to avoid the threat of prolonged litigation and other expenses they'll incur if they try to keep the most dangerous "disabled" students out of a regular classroom.
There are legions of IDEA horror stories. In one Louisiana case, two students, one of them disabled, beat a female student so badly that she had to be hospitalized. The non-disabled student was expelled. The disabled student was suspended for just 10 days, columnist Kenneth Smith of The Washington Times reported in 1999. In another case, a 14-year-old special-education student, who had already been suspended for threatening a school aide, attacked her principal several times, knocking her down and causing permanent nerve damage. The student was suspended for 45 days. The principal missed eight months of work. In Alabama, an 11-year-old special-education student with a history of throwing desks threatened to shoot to death several other children, and subsequently threatened to kill the entire third grade. But, when the issue of expelling the student came up, a school administrator invoked IDEA to urge a go-slow approach. One special-education teacher wrote Sen. Jeff Sessions that IDEA, "however well-intentioned, has become one of the single greatest obstacles that educators face in our fight to provide children with a quality education delivered in a safe environment."
Thanks to IDEA, parents of violent children can sue their local system to ensure junior's "right" to a public education. After a 10-year-old boy in Brandywine County, Del., brought a knife to class and set fire to a restroom, the state, which spends approximately $8,000 a year to educate a child, agreed to send him to an out-of-state private school at an annual cost of $70,000. In Seattle, after a blind and autistic teen-ager started a series of melees in which he head-butted a teacher, scratched a school aide in the eye and injured a school bus driver and another aide, school officials barred him from class. After a judge found out that the district's efforts to serve the youth were "inadequate" under the IDEA and ordered him reinstated, the district paid $180,000 to the boy's mother to remove her son from school.
In May, the House voted 246-181 for an amendment sponsored by Georgia Republican Rep. Charles Norwood that would have given school systems greater authority to remove violent, disruptive students from the classroom. The Senate subsequently voted for a similar amendment offered by Mr. Sessions. But, conferees, bowing to pressure from the Bush administration and disability-rights advocates, dropped IDEA reform language from the education bill currently before Congress. So, disregard the self-congratulatory pabulum from Capitol Hill and the administration about the wonders of the education "reform" bill. Real reform of IDEA a minimum condition for making the politicians' rhetoric about "safe schools for all children" a reality will have to wait until next year.


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