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HOUSE REPUBLICANS INTRODUCE SPECIAL EDUCATION REAUTHORIZATION: Democrats Criticize Legislation for Failing to Meet the Federal Government’s Funding Commitment

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"give flexibility to school districts to use up to 15 percent of their funds for pre-referral services for students before they are identified as needing special education."

Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE)Chairman of the House Education Reform subcommittee, recently introduced a bill to overhaul the law that governs special education and serves approximately 6.5 million children nationwide. Two companion bills, one promoting an expansion of loan forgiveness for teachers, and another advancing vouchers for special education students, were also introduced.

Castle’s bill, the Improving Education Results for Children with Disabilities Act, would reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to encourage early intervention, reduce paperwork requirements, and eliminate IQ tests to identify children as special education students.

Bill Seeks Distinction Between Illiteracy and Learning Disability

One of the major goals of Castle’s bill is to stop labeling illiterate children as “learning disabled” and then subsequently transferring them to special education classes. Some argue that “over-identification” not only hinders the academic development of students who are misidentified, it also takes away valuable resources from truly disadvantaged students. Castle’s bill hopes to end this practice through early intervention strategies that focus on reading ability. Very often, the only handicap possessed by a child who is labeled “learning disabled” is an inability to read. Castle’s proposal would be to “give flexibility to school districts to use up to 15 percent of their funds for pre-referral services for students before they are identified as needing special education.”

Democrats were quick to point out that one of the chief problems with the current special education program is Congress’ failure to meet its promise to fully fund the program. When the law authorizing the program was passed in 1975, the federal government set a goal of paying 40 percent of the program’s cost. But even with increases over the past few years, the President’s proposed spending level for fiscal 2004 would cover only 19 percent of the cost. The Castle bill did nothing to remedy this problem because it included no mandatory funding to meet the government’s commitment.

Two Companion Bills Address Vouchers and Teacher Loan Forgiveness

While the Castle bill does not include any voucher proposals, a companion bill introduced by Rep. Jim DeMint (R-SC) would provide states an option to use federal funds to set up voucher programs for students in special education programs. DeMint’s bill, which is patterned after Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program, would allow parents who are dissatisfied with the services offered by their local school to transfer their child to a private school with the state picking up the cost. The Florida program, which is in its third year, has over 8,500 students participating and pays an average benefit of $6,700 per student. However, this amount is often less than the cost of a private school. A recent report by People for the American Way found that the Florida program tends to benefit more affluent families because parents must cover the cost difference between the school’s tuition and the amount provided by the scholarship. Some top private schools in Florida charge tuition of $15,000 or more a year.

A third bill was introduced by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and would expand the federal student loan forgiveness program for Americans who teach math, science, or special education in disadvantaged schools. The program mirrors a similar bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and included in the President’s budget. It would increase the maximum loan forgiveness award from its current level of $5,000 to $17,500. However, unlike the President’s budget proposal, this legislation would not make the teacher loan forgiveness program mandatory. Under the congressional plans, not every teacher who qualifies for the program would be guaranteed loan forgiveness. The President’s proposal makes that guarantee.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee is expected to mark up the bill during the week of March 31st. The Senate hopes to be able to introduce a bipartisan bill in April.

Alliance Recommendations for Attracting and Retaining High-Quality Teachers and Principals

In New-Teacher Excellence, the Alliance argues that $17,500 in loan forgiveness should be offered in exchange for a commitment to teach in high-needs schools for at least four years. The Alliance is also recommending a $4,000 annual income tax credit to encourage America’s best teachers and principals to accept the challenge of working in high-poverty schools. The credit would go to teachers in states and school districts that are willing to increase resources dedicated to paying teachers as skilled professionals. Financial incentives, however, are not enough. To complement them, the schools would provide a two-year mentoring program for new teachers and a high-quality professional development program for all teachers. Well-designed induction programs, organized at the state level and implemented in local districts, can help schools hire, keep, and professionally develop qualified new teachers, whether trained in traditional or alternative teacher preparation programs.

 

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