Late last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill that makes several important changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law that provides a free public education to over 6 million children with disabilities in the United States. At the same time, a coalition of approximately 40 Republican members joined almost every Democratic member in defeating two amendments that would have provided federal funds to disabled children who attend private schools.
One of the provisions included in the House-passed version is an attempt to limit the number of children who are misdiagnosed as special education students. Toward this end, the bill allows states to use up to 15 percent of their IDEA funding for programs that would provide early intervention. Supporters of the legislation, introduced by Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE), believe that these programs can help identify students who might only have a problem with one skill, such as reading, and prevent them from being labeled “learning disabled.”
The bill also makes changes to reduce paperwork and address concerns over how to discipline disabled students. While current law allows schools to remove disabled children from the classroom only for serious offenses-such as bringing weapons or drugs to school-the House-passed legislation would treat disabled students the same as nondisabled students for any violation of school policy. As a result of this provision, the Council for Exceptional Children, the Children’s Defense Fund, and other organizations that represent disabled children were opposed to the bill.
Some organizations have been critical of the bill because it does not address mandatory funding for IDEA. In 1975, when the special education law was first enacted, Congress agreed to reimburse states for 40 percent of the program’s cost. While the bill does not specifically deal with mandatory funding, it does authorize an additional $2.2 billion for fiscal year 2004, and another $2.5 billion for FY 2005, and it would set a course to reach the 40 percent funding level within seven years. However, these numbers are only authorization levels; actual funding would remain at the mercy of the yearly decisions of the Appropriations Committee and the overall cap in the congressional budget on all discretionary programs. (For instance, in FY 2003, programs authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act were funded at $6 billion below their authorized level.)
Supporters of mandatory funding believe that making special education funding an entitlement program is the only way to ensure that Congress will reach its goal. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told CQ Weekly that mandatory funding for IDEA was the only way to avoid “rolling the dice every year with the Committee on Appropriations.” Even with increases over the past few years, IDEA funding for FY 2003 would cover only 19 percent of the program’s cost.
On the Senate side, Sens. Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee, have been working on a bipartisan bill over the last several months. They aim to finish their version of the bill before the Memorial Day holiday.