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"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. As a result . . . parents, teachers, students and schools across the nation continue to be cheated out of the resources they were promised."

According to the 2000 Census, 1 in 12 children (5.2 million) have some physical or mental disability. Since 1975, these children have been guaranteed the right to a “free, appropriate public education” by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Prior to its implementation, approximately 1 million children with disabilities were shut out of schools and hundreds of thousands more were denied appropriate services. Last week, a special commission studying IDEA issued a report that made nine key recommendations to Senate and House Education committees on how the act could be improved, but refused to call for mandatory federal funding for special education.

Created on Oct. 2, 2001, by President Bush, the Commission on Excellence in Special Education was directed to collect information and study issues related to federal, state, and local special education programs. Its goal was to recommend policies for improving the education performance of students with disabilities. Appearing at the committee hearings were former Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, who chaired the commission, and commissioners Doug Huntt and Doug Gill.

Congress has already held meetings on IDEA reauthorization, but it had been waiting on the commission’s report before fully tackling the issue and moving forward with legislation. While IDEA is due for reauthorization this year, many people believe that Congress will not complete the process before the end of the year.

The commission report called for less paperwork and regulations and a greater focus on student achievement and closing the achievement gap between general education students and students with disabilities. It also promoted early identification and intervention programs while stressing the importance of teaching reading, with these comments:

“Of those with “specific learning disabilities,” 80% are there simply because they haven’t learned how to read. Thus, many children identified for special education-up to 40%-are there because they weren’t taught to read. The reading difficulties may not be their only area of difficulty, but it’s the area that resulted in special education placement. Sadly, few children placed in special education close the achievement gap to a point where they can read and learn like their peers.”


The report failed to endorse mandatory federal funding for IDEA. When the law was passed in 1975, Congress set a goal of providing supplemental federal special education funding for up to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure. Mandatory federal funding would require the federal government to meet the funding level promised in 1975, but it was not one of the commission’s recommendations: “While the commission believes that increasing appropriations for IDEA should remain a federal priority, it recommends keeping funding for this program as discretionary.”

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) took the commission to task on the mandatory funding issue. His comments:

“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. As a result . . . parents, teachers, students and schools across the nation continue to be cheated out of the resources they were promised.”


House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) took a conflicting view of mandatory federal funding:

“This expert panel has soundly rejected the notion of turning special education into a new federal entitlement spending program, which would directly impede our efforts to reform the current system to address the growing concerns of teachers, parents, and children with special needs.”


A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and their Families: A Closer Look at the Special Commission Report


After hearing from hundreds of individuals and organizations at 13 public hearings and meetings nationwide and receiving hundreds of written comments, the Commission made nine key findings:

  • The current system often places process above results. Too often, simply qualifying for special education becomes an end-point-not a gateway to more effective instruction and strong intervention.
  • The current system should place more emphasis on prevention, early and accurate identification of learning and behavior problems, and aggressive intervention. This means students with disabilities don’t get help until they begin to fail.
  • Children placed in special education should be general education children first–not as separate unique costs that lead to incentives for misidentification and academic isolation.
  • Parents have their child’s best interests in mind, but they often do not feel they are empowered when the system fails them.
  • The culture of compliance has often developed from the pressures of litigation, diverting much energy of the public schools’ first mission: educating every child.
  • Many of the current methods of identifying children with disabilities lack validity. As a result, thousands of children are misidentified every year, while many others are not identified early enough or at all.
  • Children with disabilities require highly qualified teachers. Teachers, parents, and education officials desire better preparation, support, and professional development related to the needs of serving these children.
  • Research on special education needs enhanced rigor and the long-term coordination necessary to support the needs of children, educators and parents. The current system does not always embrace or implement evidence-based practices once established.
  • Too few children with disabilities successfully graduate from high school or transition to full employment and postsecondary opportunities, despite provisions in IDEA providing for transition services. Parents want an education system that is results oriented and focused on the child’s needs-in school and beyond.

The report summed up the challenges that IDEA reauthorization will face:

“In short, our reforms must remove the bureaucracy and regulations that prevent a focus on closing the gap. We must begin with the simple question of whether children with disabilities are learning and functioning well and then reform and tailor the system from there. To overcome the many challenges to and obstacles in our special education system, we must consider reforms at every level of public education, from the federal to the local level, so that every resource is tailored to the specific needs of students and parents.”


Read the entire commission report: A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and their Families


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