CHN: Senate Reauthorizes Disability Education Bill

On Thursday, May 13, the Senate passed HR 1350, a bill to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), by a 94 to 3 vote. IDEA is a federal law that guarantees access to a free public education in the “least restrictive environment” to the nation’s 6.5 million students with disabilities and provides federal assistance to school districts to carry out this promise. This bill reauthorizes funding for IDEA through FY 2009.
The original law, passed in 1975, allows the federal government to reimburse states for 40 percent of the average cost per special education student. Congress has never fully funded IDEA, and subsequently has repeatedly failed to meet this goal. In FY 2004 states received $10.1 billion in IDEA funds, only covering 19 percent of states’ costs. This places school districts in a tight fiscal situation if they are to serve the needs of students with disabilities.

The reauthorization bill passed by the House last year worried many advocates for children with disabilities, as it continued to under fund IDEA. Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) offered an amendment that would have guaranteed a $2.2 billion increase in mandatory funding for IDEA over the next 6 years to reach 40 percent funding levels. Under the Harkin-Hagel amendment, the $2.2 billion increase needed to get federal IDEA funding to 40 percent of the costs per student would not be dependent on annual appropriations. Although the amendment received 56 yes votes, it was four votes shy of the 60 needed to pass. Despite the loss, advocates were pleased with the bipartisan support.

An alternative funding amendment offered by Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, was adopted by a 96-1 vote. The Gregg amendment authorizes $12.4 billion for IDEA grants in fiscal year 2005 and adds language to the bill that specifies annual funding levels for the Appropriations Committee. The suggested funding levels in the Gregg amendment would put IDEA on a “glidepath” to full funding by 2011, but there is no guarantee that the Appropriations committee will provide the full amount.

The Senate agreed to several other amendments. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) sponsored an amendment ensuring that students with disabilities who transfer between districts receive the same attention in their new district. The Senate agreed to the amendment, which guarantees the rights of children whose parents are in the military, or those who are homeless or in foster care. Also agreed to was an amendment sponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) that calls on the Department of Education to do a national longitudinal study on the relationship between environmental health factors and students in public schools. An amendment that would allow school districts to claim attorneys’ fees when they win a lawsuit regarding IDEA implementation, sponsored by Senator Gregg, was also agreed to.

The Senate bill had much broader bipartisan support than the House bill, which passed almost exactly along party lines in a 251 to 171 vote last May. In the House, there was significant debate over funding, with Democrats pushing to make IDEA an entitlement program to guarantee funding levels. House Republican leadership defeated this effort by refusing to allow a vote on the amendment. In contrast, there was bipartisan support in the Senate for the similar language in the Harkin-Hagel amendment.

The next steps are not clear as there are some significant differences between these two bills, including difference provisions for disciplinary measures, paperwork reduction, enforcement and compliance provisions, highly qualified teacher provisions, and attorneys’ fees. The House bill would allow schools to punish a child with disabilities under the school’s conduct code without taking into account his or her disability. Advocates fear these strict disciplinary provisions will result in children with disabilities losing access to public education. The House bill contains a 10-state pilot program to reduce paperwork; the Senate bill has a 20-state pilot program. Advocates fear that this reduction in paperwork may result in the loss of certain civil rights for students with disabilities, and they hope to limit its scope until it has been proven effective. The House bill allows governors to place caps on attorney fees in IDEA cases where parents win, while the Senate version simply offers reimbursement to the school district if they win the case. Advocates worry that the House version would limit the amount of attorneys willing to take on IDEA cases and unfairly penalize poor families whose children have disabilities.

Despite the differences between the House and Senate bills, advocates say that a conference agreement is within Congress’ grasp this session if members continue towards resolution.

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