Senate Panel Approves Bill for Students With Disabilities

New York Times
June 26, 2003

WASHINGTON, June 25 — After 18 months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, a Senate committee today unanimously approved a bill reauthorizing educational services for the United States' 6.5 million disabled students, assembling a bipartisan stand on issues including discipline of unruly students and a reduction in paperwork.

A similar bill split Republicans and Democrats in the House this spring.

The swift approval, in a 10-minute session this morning by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, came in sharp contrast to the last reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, whose passage in 1997 was contentious.

The Senate bill preserves protections in current law for special-education children who misbehave in school, requiring schools to determine whether the misbehavior was related to a disability. If not, the school could send the child to an alternative program during a suspension.

But the Senate bill repeals a current provision that lets a child remain in the original classroom while his family appeals the suspension order. It also shortens the deadline for rendering such a decision to 20 days from 45.

The Senate bill won cautious praise today from advocates for the disabled, who had largely criticized the House bill.

James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, lauded the committee for "legislation that is bipartisan, balanced and respectful of the complex needs of our nation's 6.5 million students with disabilities."

The center praised the bill for easing mechanisms to identify children who need extra help at younger ages. It also commended its steps to help disabled teenagers with the transition to life after high school.

Paul Marchand, a lobbyist for United Cerebral Palsy and The Arc, an organization representing people with developmental disabilities, called the Senate bill a "marked improvement" over the House version, particularly in its protections of disabled children who run afoul of school behavior codes. Under the House bill, schools could suspend or expel children who violate rules, without regard to their disabilities.

Some advocates for the disabled worried, for example, that diabetic children could be thrown out for eating in class, or that autistic children could be punished for behavior they could not always control.

School administrators, however, had praised the House bill for streamlining special education, reducing paperwork, and making it easier to maintain discipline. That bill passed the House on April 30 by a vote of 251 to 171, with 34 Democrats joining Republicans to support it.

Nancy Reder, deputy director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said: "We like what they did with discipline compared to the House bill. We think it represents a fair compromise with the disability community that didn't want any changes and our members."

The safeguards about discipline do not apply to disabled children who take guns, drugs or other weapons into schools, who are subject to expulsion and other measures like other students.

With the intention of reducing paperwork, the Senate bill removes current provisions for schools to write short-term goals into the educational plans of disabled children.

Today's Senate bill left unanswered one major question for every state and special education director and teacher: the amount of money the federal government will contribute to special education. Republicans and Democrats alike say they embrace the goal of fully financing special education by 2009, but Republicans say they would like the federal contribution to be discretionary while the Democrats contend it should be mandatory.

Mary Kusler, a legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators, which also supported the House bill, said her group saw the Senate's effort as "a starting point."

The association, Ms. Kusler said, was surprised and "incredibly disappointed" that today's bill did not call for mandatory full financing, or carry an appropriation level, and said that unless the federal contribution was mandatory, it would continue to fall short.

"They've demonstrated that even when they set out a goal in the budget, that isn't binding," she said.

With the bill headed to the Senate floor, many advocates wondered how a conference committee would reconcile the House and Senate versions of special education's future.

Senator Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who is the education committee chairman, said that "the fact that we come to the table with a bill that was reported out of committee with unanimous support puts us in a strong position."