- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

Congress yesterday passed legislation to authorize an additional $134.5 billion for special education over the next six years and tied it to sweeping reforms of school programs to aid disabled children.

The legislation sent to President Bush doubles annual federal spending for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), from an authorized level of $12.4 billion in fiscal 2005 to $26.1 billion by 2011. It passed the House 397-3 before the Senate approved it by a voice vote.

Federal spending for IDEA has increased from $2.1 billion in 1994 to $10.1 billion in 2004. The bill calls for Congress to reach a 40 percent federal share for special-education costs by 2011. The federal share now stands at 18.6 percent.

The added spending requires school districts to sharply reduce the number of children who are enrolled in special-education classes. The current 6.5 million figure is blamed on an “overidentification” problem.

Tens of thousands of minority children are misclassified and inappropriately placed in special- education classes, primarily because of reading problems, said a report that accompanied the legislation. Many of these children are black, who make up more than one-fifth of all students called disabled, the report states.

“Disproportionate numbers are being placed in special education, particularly African-American males,” Rep. Danny K. Davis, Illinois Democrat, said during House debate. “This is a hotbed issue in many communities of the country.”

Testifying earlier in the year during hearings before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. Chaka Fattah, Pennsylvania Democrat, said, “The misplacement of students in special education stigmatizes and denies students the opportunity of a high-quality education.”

Other reforms required by the legislation, which President Bush is expected to sign:

• Schools are prohibited from requiring students to be medicated for behavioral problems in order to attend classes. The prohibition is aimed at requirements that children be placed on psychotropic drugs or stimulants such as Ritalin.

“School officials should not presume to know what medication a child needs, or if the child even needs medication. Only medical doctors have the ability to determine if a prescription for a psychotropic drug is appropriate for a child,” the report states.

• Schools are given more flexibility to discipline or remove students who disrupt learning in special-education classrooms, as long as the behavior is not related to a child’s disability, such as Tourette’s syndrome.

The law also relaxes requirements for formal proceedings when teachers or parents want to change a special-education child’s annual Individualized Education Program (IEP), which lists goals and objectives for students in areas such as reading, writing, math, behavior and independence.

Congress also approved an optional pilot program for up to 15 states to move to multiyear IEPs for children as a way to reduce paperwork.

Special-education teachers and parents can continue with annual IEPs.

“The IEP is a tool of accountability between parents and teachers,” said Jeralee Smith, a teacher of severely disabled children in Riverside, Calif.

“It would be very difficult to write goals and objectives for three years, to project ahead when a child moves between teachers and schools,” she said. “I sometimes do four or five IEPs a year for a child because parents require that feedback.”

Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the education committee, hailed passage of the bill, which capped two years of work to reauthorize the IDEA.

“The final agreement will be an across-the-board win for teachers, parents and students with special needs,” he said.

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