- The Washington Times - Friday, November 30, 2001

On his second day in office, President Bush made it his first priority to ensure that every child in America learns. He built his plan for education reform, No Child Left Behind, on four common sense principles: accountability for results, local control and flexibility, expanded parental choice and doing what works to improve student achievement based on scientific research. Democrats and Republicans in Congress worked together this year to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) based on these principles, and a final bill for the president to sign is close at hand.

A major issue must be resolved before we can move forward. For reasons I will explain, an ill-advised and unrelated Senate amendment on special education would more likely harm rather than help students with disabilities. The conference committee should improve the bill and complete the process by rejecting this amendment.

Federal programs to assist students with disabilities are authorized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was first signed into law by President Ford. IDEA has brought millions of children with disabilities out of state institutions and into regular classrooms, colleges and the work force.

In spite of this success, serious challenges remain in providing students with disabilities the free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to which they are entitled by the IDEA. For example, according to data from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, black children are almost twice as likely to be identified as emotionally disturbed as white children and more than twice as likely to be identified as mentally retarded. Our system fails to teach many of these children fundamental skills like reading and then inappropriately identifies some of them as having disabilities. Not only does this hurt those children who are misidentified, it also reduces the resources available to serve children with disabilities.

Mr. Bush has a strategy to correct these problems when IDEA comes up for its regular reauthorization next year. He created the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education, chaired by former governor of Iowa Terry Branstad, to recommend ways to improve performance of students with disabilities. The Department of Education is already preparing to assist Congress and the Commission in a comprehensive, evidence-based review of IDEA's programs, just like the review Congress and the administration did for ESEA during its reauthorization this year. The president has already included a $1 billion increase for IDEA in his budget-the largest increase any president has ever proposed for this program.

Unfortunately, a massive amendment to expand IDEA without addressing its problems was added to the Senate version of ESEA this year. This amendment would remove IDEA from two levels of review the annual appropriations process and next year's reauthorization by making it a mandatory program. But if there is one thing we know about government programs, it is that money without accountability does not help. It can hurt every child who is incorrectly placed in special education classes and also hurt every child who has real disabilities. In other words, we want to ensure that the right students receive special education. While all sides agree on the need for more money for students with disabilities, the Senate amendment is clearly the wrong approach.

While supporters of this amendment said they offered it to help children with disabilities, it only requires 45 percent of its funds to be spent on these children. In other words, more than half of the money can be used for general purposes. This is misleading packaging. Students with disabilities deserve every dollar appropriated for them, not 45 cents, and all students deserve accurate identification of their skills, abilities, and progress.

Mr. Bush grounded No Child Left Behind in several basic propositions. One is that every child including a child with disabilities can learn. Another is that resources should be linked to accountability. Instead of rewarding schools for inappropriately placing children in special education, we should hold them accountable for ensuring that every child learns, every year. That's common sense. Congress is doing America's children a great service by bringing common sense reform to ESEA this year. It should do the same for IDEA next year.

Rod Paige is the secretary of education.

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