- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003

Sweeping reform of the federal special-education program passed the House yesterday, but two Republican efforts to allow taxpayer support for handicapped students in private schools were defeated.

By a vote of 251-171, the House passed a $125.9 billion, seven-year reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), with reforms to reduce paperwork and limit the practice of identifying children with reading and behavior problems as disabled.

Thirty-four Democrats joined 217 Republicans in passing the bill, with seven Republicans and 163 Democrats in opposition.

"Today we took a major step forward in the drive to reform education in America by passing this critical legislation that will strengthen our nation's education law for children with special needs," said Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

"The measure approved today provides powerful reforms requested for years by teachers, principals and local educators reforms that will help ensure that children with disabilities will not be left behind."

Over a seven-year period, the bill would authorize increased federal funding for special education from its current level of $8.9 billion for fiscal year 2003 to $25.2 billion in fiscal 2010.

But when federal funding reaches that level, an estimated 40 percent federal share, the bill would require states to limit their special-education programs to 13.5 percent of the total student population in any jurisdiction.

Currently, 17 states and 28 of the largest city and county school systems have more than 13.5 percent of their students in special-education classes. Critics say tens of thousands of children are "misidentified" as disabled only because they have reading and behavior problems that should be remedied in regular classrooms.

The House-passed bill "will reduce the number of students that are misidentified or overrepresented in special education a problem that particularly affects minority children," Mr. Boehner said during debate on the House floor.

"As the Civil Rights Project at Harvard has shown, African-Americans are nearly three times more likely to be labeled as mentally retarded under the current IDEA system and almost twice as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed," he said.

The House Rules Committee stopped amendments by Democrats that would have made special education a mandatory entitlement, which would require appropriations bills to fund the maximum levels each year.

Rep. George Miller of California, ranking committee Democrat, said the IDEA bill was "fundamentally flawed" because it did not include the mandatory-spending provision and eliminated special procedural rights for handicapped children who misbehave in school.

"Despite promises made last year by the administration and by the Republican leadership of this Congress, the bill before us today fails to ensure that additional resources will accompany these major changes to the law," Mr. Miller said.

The bill would reduce the costly paperwork burden of teachers and schools by requiring education plans for handicapped students every three years, instead of annually. It also requires school districts to achieve the same academic improvements for special-education students as required for regular students under the No Child Left Behind Act passed two years ago.

Yesterday, the House rejected two school-choice amendments to the bill. By a vote of 240-182, the House defeated a proposal by Rep. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, to give states the option to allow parents with children in private schools to use their share of public special-education money for tuition.

By a vote of 247-176, the House also rejected a proposed amendment by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, Colorado Republican, to allow school districts the option of offering parents of disabled children in private schools a certificate to be used for their child's specific special-education needs.

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