CHN: House Education and Workforce Committee Reauthorizes IDEA

Funding Remains Discretionary Despite Democratic Push for Mandatory Spending
On Thursday, April 10, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved legislation to rewrite and reauthorize the nation’s special education law, the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (PL 105-17). Known by its acronym, IDEA guarantees students with disabilities a free public education in the “least restrictive environment” and authorizes the federal government to reimburse states for 40 percent of the average per pupil special education cost. The House committee’s reauthorizing legislation (HR 1350) was passed on a 29-19 vote with support from all committee Republicans and three Democrats – Representatives Robert E. Andrews (NJ), Ron Kind (WI), and Denise L. Majette (GA).

The bill addresses some of the concerns expressed by panelists at recent IDEA reauthorization hearings, including the current legislation’s burdensome paperwork requirements, inefficient processing of special education applications, insufficient teacher training, and delayed diagnosis of children with special needs. Despite a few of the bill’s improvements to current law, HR 1350 fails to address the primary concern of Democrats, school administrators, and disability advocates – IDEA federal reimbursement rates to states.

The federal government currently compensates school districts for 18 percent of the average cost per special education student; in fiscal year 2003 this amounted to $8.9 billion in discretionary spending for the education of 6.5 million students with disabilities. During committee markup, Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) introduced an amendment to make IDEA funding mandatory and thus guarantee full funding of the 40 percent reimbursement rate within six years. The amendment was defeated after heated debate on a 22-26 party-line vote. Democrats argued that spending would never reach the 40 percent goal unless it was guaranteed, while Republicans countered that discretionary spending is the best way to increase IDEA funding while maintaining the program’s flexibility. Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) angrily rejected Democratic claims that Congress does not adequately fund education, explaining, “We all wish every day could be Christmas. I’m pretty generous, but I’m not Santa Claus.”

Rather than approving entitlement status for IDEA, the committee adopted an amendment by voice vote that would continue IDEA’s discretionary funding and authorize an additional $2.2 billion for FY 04 and $2.5 for FY 05. Introduced by Rep. Jon Porter (R-NV), this amendment would allow the federal government to reach a 21 percent reimbursement rate by 2004. This rate will only be reached, however, if Congress fully appropriates the money, which it has failed to do in the past.

Additional provisions in the committee’s IDEA reauthorization bill include an option for a three-year “Individualized Education Plan” (IEP) in place of the current law’s yearly IEP requirement for each special education student and a measure to expand school choice for students in special education. Of particular concern to the disability community is the bill’s elimination of hearing requirements for the expulsion of children with disabilities from school for misconduct. Under current law, special-needs students cannot be expelled for serious conduct offenses unless a hearing is held to determine if the student’s misconduct is the result of a disability.

IDEA is set to expire on September 30, 2003, the end of the current fiscal year. In the Senate, ranking Health, Education, Labor, and Program (HELP) Committee Members Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) have begun work on an IDEA reauthorization bill, according to committee aides.

Education and Youth Policy