- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

President Bush's commission charged with finding ways to improve special education releases its report today recommending, among other things, increased accountability for the federal special-education program and fewer paperwork requirements.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, has some questions for the commission.

Mr. Kennedy convenes a hearing today before his Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee to examine the commission's findings and to question what he says is the commission's silence on mandatory funding increases for special education. He will also question the commission's call for the use of vouchers for parents of disabled children.

"I'm concerned that the commission did not take a stand on the commitment made by the federal government thirty years ago to fully fund special education," Mr. Kennedy said of the report, which was sent to Capitol Hill staff last week. "As a result of the failure to live up to that commitment, parents, teachers, students and schools across the nation continue to be cheated out of the resources they were promised."

The commission, created in October of last year and chaired by former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, examined the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is up for congressional reauthorization this year. It found as many critics in Congress have that the IDEA program forces too many students into special education classes who do not belong there and waits too long to identify the students who truly need special help.

In its report, the commission recommends enhancing IDEA accountability to focus more on results while at the same time reducing the IDEA paperwork burden. It also recommends implementing research-based early identification and intervention programs to reduce over-identification and misidentification of youth, including minorities; reforming how special education is financed; supporting special-education teachers and encouraging innovative approaches and parental involvement.

Mr. Kennedy and other Senate Democrats continue to push for immediate guaranteed funding increases for IDEA to fulfill the promise Congress made to states in 1975 to cover 40 percent of the cost of educating disabled students. Although there have been notable increases in special education in recent years, the government has fallen short of meeting that goal. Critics of IDEA, led by House Republicans, say funding must be linked to reform or else reform will not happen.

Mr. Kennedy's spokesman, Jim Manley, also said the report calls for the use of vouchers to allow parents to send disabled children to private or public schools of their choice.

"There is no guarantee that vouchers would be available to all disabled students, nor is there a guarantee that their civil rights would be protected," Mr. Kennedy said yesterday.

Dave Schnittger, spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee, said the report contains "a small section that encourages states and the federal government to ensure that parents of children with special needs have as many choices as possible" in educating their children.

The state of Florida has a voucher system for disabled students that has been popular with many parents.

"At a minimum we need to be sure federal law does not needlessly discourage states from following Florida's example," Mr. Schnittger said.

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