- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

With the ink barely dry on a massive new education law, Congress and the administration are rolling up their sleeves again this time preparing to overhaul the federal program that funds special education.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is up for congressional reauthorization this year and will be a source of considerable debate, as Democrats continue to demand guaranteed funding increases for the program and Republicans push to make some changes to it first.
President Bush's commission on special education, created in October, held its first meeting on Jan. 15. The 19-member group, which includes federal, state and local education leaders and special-education analysts, is charged with examining ways to improve the IDEA program and is expected to produce final recommendations by the summer.
Critics of the program say it offers incentives for school systems to force students into special-education programs even if they don't belong there.
"Too many children are being wrongly placed in special-education classes under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and we need to change that. The current special-education system, quite simply, is failing our children, and that's unacceptable," said Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
But Senate Democrats planned to continue to push for guaranteed funding increases for the IDEA program in order to fulfill the promise Congress made to states in 1975 to cover 40 percent of the cost of educating disabled students.
The government has fallen far short of meeting that goal, despite notable increases in special-education funding in recent years.
"I defy you to find a state or local school official who isn't desperate to secure those funds," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Mr. Manley said the first step for Democrats this year will be to examine the president's budget, when it is released, "to see how much of a priority it is for this administration."
He said Senate Democrats probably will offer an amendment during the budget debate that would declare funding for special education an entitlement, meaning the IDEA program would be guaranteed its full 40 percent funding with no annual review.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, added a similar proposal to the Senate version of the education bill last year, but House Republicans managed to keep it out of the final education bill. The Hagel-Harkin proposal would have cost an estimated $181 billion over 10 years.
Most Republicans say funding decisions should be tied to some much-needed changes for the IDEA program. If funding is guaranteed, all incentive for reform is lost, they argue.
In testifying before Mr. Boehner's committee last fall, Education Secretary Rod Paige noted that minority students were disproportionately represented in special-education classes. Mr. Paige also said the system fails to teach many children fundamental skills like reading and then wrongly labels them as disabled.
The new education law includes a $975 million initiative by Mr. Bush to encourage reading skills at an early age. Mr. Boehner said this likely will help "alleviate the problem of misdiagnosing" students.
"But the special-education system needs to be comprehensively reformed," Mr. Boehner said, adding that the president's commission "will help us to do that wisely and with the best information available."
Mr. Boehner's committee will be responsible for reauthorizing the IDEA program in the House and Mr. Kennedy's committee will do so in the Senate.
Nearly all lawmakers agree that states need more money for special education, but members of both parties will continue to be divided over whether that funding should be mandatory.
Congress agreed to spend $7.5 billion on special-education programs in fiscal 2002 a $1.2 billion increase over last year's level.
Deb Fiddelke, spokeswoman for Mr. Hagel, said she hopes that as reforms are made to the IDEA program this year, more lawmakers will agree to guarantee the 40 percent funding level for the program.
Hope Jordan, an assistant professor at the Regent School of Education, has more than 16 years of experience as both a special and general educator. Miss Jordan said most schools in Virginia are doing a good job of referring children to special-education classes only if they truly need it. But she said additional resources are sorely needed to hire more special-education teachers.

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