- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

When well-intentioned members of Congress rely too heavily on the written word whether through written testimonies, voluminous reports, or complex legal language to address a pressing national need the ensuing legislative solution doesn't always accomplish the new law's intent. Having been in a position to affect policy for more than two decades, I know of the unintended consequences we faced over the years in Head Start, juvenile justice and bilingual education, to name a few.
As the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce from 1995 to 2001, I know first-hand that understanding real life needs and trying to address them through effective public policy has proven most difficult with special-education programs. Spend time with a child with a disability, or a parent, or a school principal, weary with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and you'll be taught more than the written word could ever provide.
This law, first enacted in 1975, is up for renewal by Congress. And, of course, Congress must rely on the written word to translate life experiences into life-transforming polices. This year Congress is again working to improve the law to more closely meet the needs of those with learning and physical disabilities while making it more user-friendly to all who have to meet its requirements.
As chief author of the law's last reauthorization, I'm hearing from all sides in this debate that the changes we made in 1997, after much consensus-building among very strong points of view, are just now beginning to generate improvements. In fact, this regulation-burdened law didn't have new rules finalized until almost two years after its enactment.
In my judgment, while major surgery is not warranted on a law that is still being implemented, there are some issues the House and Senate should address based on what is actually happening today in classrooms and homes across America. Those issues can be categorized with three words money, diagnosis and training. Money usually gets people's attention, so let's take that first.
When we first enacted IDEA 27 years ago, we promised that the federal government would, in an effort to somewhat ease the burden of this huge federal program, provide schools with 40 percent of the average cost to educate non-disabled students. Until 1995 that federal contribution hovered around six to eight percent, a woeful shortfall in meeting this goal.
Under Republican leadership over the last seven years, Congress has provided more meaningful fiscal relief to school districts and taxpayers burdened with the escalating costs of educating a child with a diagnosed disability. Between 1995 and 1998, we provided a 77 percent increase in funding. Today, with annual increases of greater than $1 billion, we are up to 17 percent of the promised 40 percent.
In 1997, we sought to align more closely IDEA student performance to general educational standards and curricula. This was a good first step, and we need to keep moving forward. There needs to be a meaningful, self-fulfilling life for each student after IDEA. Preparing them for that eventuality early and continually in the classroom and in job preparation should be a renewed focus of IDEA.
A second key area to visit during IDEA's review is the early identification and diagnosis of any learning, physical and emotional problems in children.
Students in IDEA programs run the gamut from those with mild reading difficulties to severe disabilities. Too often they are assigned to the same special education processes. The earlier and more precise our diagnostic efforts are, the better equipped we'll be to provide children the individual and consistent attention their needs require. The law should reflect this.
With the president's leadership, Congress took an important step in this direction with the enactment of the Early Reading First initiative. Now those 3-to-6-year-olds from low-income families who enter Head Start, Even Start, or other community-based early learning programs, will get the evaluation and cognitive development focus necessary to determine the best education-based program to meet their needs. Later some will need the assistance provided through the IDEA, but some will hopefully get the early instruction that moves them right into general education classes upon entering school. This model needs to be replicated beyond the limited scope of Early Reading First. The costs expended for the early recognition of problems will pay dividends ten-fold in saved IDEA costs.
Training is a third area that should be a focus of congressional attention during the IDEA debate. As I often said while chairman, "The child's first and most important teacher is his or her parents."
Families need to be involved with their children either through improving their own reading deficiencies or doing the same for their children. And waiting for that child at school should be teachers who understand the complexities of early instruction. That can only happen with better-trained teachers.
Teaching children with disabilities can be both the most rewarding and most arduous job in teaching. We need professionals who not only have the commitment, but the skills in the classroom and with parents, to help students succeed by any estimation a tall order. Without good teacher training, the system fails, students fail, and so does the promise of the IDEA. Congress needs to find the right mix of requirements and rewards so classroom instruction improves.
Few realize that regular elementary teachers nationwide instruct on average four IDEA students. All teachers need to have a thorough grounding in special-education techniques, while we encourage specialized teachers to enter the field and stay with special education for the long term. That's not easy. We haven't done a good job of rewarding those who take on these challenges. In return for their commitment, we must streamline and better use technology to get the oppressive paperwork requirements that now are stifling good teaching under control.
I encourage my former colleagues in the House and Senate not to rely on these written words, but to experience some classrooms in action. They will find the answers to the complex problems that face us in IDEA today in classrooms, parent-teacher conferences and school board meetings across America.

Bill Goodling is a former chairman of the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee and a senior adviser to Sagamore Associates.


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