Special ed reform is in the air. The House has passed and the Senate has introduced bills to overhaul the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The stated purpose of both versions is to make America's main program for educating disabled students better targeted, less litigious, less bureaucratic, more generously funded, and more precisely focused on educational achievement. These are unimpeachable goals. The key question is how do the pending bills stack up against their aspirations?
Prior to 1975, states and localities were under no federal compulsion to educate children with disabilities. Many students with physical or cognitive limitations were exempt from mandatory state schooling laws. In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was signed, guaranteeing disabled youngsters a "free and appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment." This federal mandate, and the modest amount of federal funding attached to it, opened school house doors to millions of students with disabilities who otherwise would have been left to their own (or their family's) devices to be educated, if at all. It was a major policy milestone; later renamed IDEA, it has become an integral part of the education landscape.
But it isn't perfect. Parents, advocates, policy makers, educators, and analysts all complain about various aspects of IDEA. They claim that it is under-funded, poorly targeted, overly adversarial, buried in paperwork, and insufficiently focused on results, to cite some of the most common complaints.
When the 1975 law was passed, Congress stipulated that Uncle Sam would contribute up to 40 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure (APPE) to states to ease the fiscal burden of providing special education services. Whereas federal appropriators treated 40 percent as a funding ceiling, and never have appropriated more than the current 19 percent, many advocates viewed 40 percent as a promise unkept, arguing that states should receive 40 percent of the annual APPE per special education student as a federal entitlement.
The House-passed bill (HR 1350) stops short of making IDEA funding an entitlement but does provide more money--a 245 percent increase, in fact, from $10.3 billion in 2004 to $25.2 billion in 2010. The formula is complex, especially its sundry "hold harmless" provisions, which include a stipulation that no state's grant be less than in the previous year. Up to 12 percent of each state's grant can be used for administrative, evaluative, and reform purposes at the state level, while the remaining 88 percent is earmarked for local public (and charter) schools. In the world of special ed funding, this qualifies as "simplification."
Both bills include provisions to focus special education funds and programs on the students that truly need them. This is important, since studies suggest that certain subpopulations--African American males and students with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia--are either over-diagnosed or misdiagnosed. Up to 15 percent of a state's new federal funding can be used for preventive measures, such as programs to enhance early reading skills. The bill bans the dubious practice of diagnosing learning disabilities based on gaps between students' IQ and achievement. Such changes should result in fewer non-disabled students being tagged for special education.
IDEA has long mandated that each child diagnosed with a disability that affects education must have his/her special ed services mapped out in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP is supposed to be a product of fruitful collaboration between the student's parents and educational and medical professionals. Although such cooperation often occurs, in a non-trivial minority of cases parents clash with professionals. If the parents have access to legal representation, then both sides gird for litigation and the matter proceeds ponderously and contentiously through the courts.
Enough parents have won legal judgments against school districts that failed to satisfy key provisions of IDEA that most states and localities now have exceedingly burdensome accountability systems to verify that all the Ts get crossed. Although parents see little value in such procedural "box-checking," and special ed teachers and administrators view it as a major distraction, top education officials and some courts insist on a procedural-compliance system for regulating special ed so they are shielded from adverse legal actions.
The pending bills contain changes that could make special education less litigious, less bureaucratic, and more results-oriented. They attempt to make the program user-friendlier for teachers and administrators and more customer-friendly for parents. To those ends, House and Senate both propose that the requirement for annual IEP updates be relaxed to one that mandates such a process every three years unless parents request annual adjustments. Minor changes in a child's IEP could be effected based on the mutual consent of parents and education officials. Disputes over the type and quality of special education services provided to a student, which previously invited legal proceedings, could first be referred to mediation and arbitration. States and districts are told to minimize procedural rules and paperwork, and the General Accounting Office is directed to evaluate their compliance. Importantly, changes made in IDEA make it consistent with the results-based accountability and teacher quality provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
From my perspective, neither House nor Senate proposal is a complete reform. Both bills contain language about residual procedural protections that could stop education officials from eliminating unnecessary paperwork. The achievement testing requirements are not sufficiently strong and specific to fully transform the IEP into a "performance IEP," as Bryan Hassel and I (and others) have recommended. There are no major school-choice provisions in the legislation (beyond those available through NCLB) to strengthen the hand of parents who are dissatisfied with their child's education experience. This last shortcoming is particularly disappointing in light of a recent study indicating that students with disabilities are well-served by Florida's McKay special ed voucher program.
Despite those reservations, however, the proposed changes would move special education towards more emphasis on teaching and learning and fewer litigation logjams and paperwork avalanches. Although it would be wonderful if lawmakers enhanced their reform proposals with stronger results-based accountability and parental choice provisions, they also should beware of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Our special education system will never be perfect in the eyes of all its "stakeholders." But it's vital for it to continue to get better in meeting the educational needs of students with disabilities. The pending reforms bring us some distance down that road.
For additional background on IDEA, see "Rethinking special education for a new century," Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, edited by Chester E. Finn, Jr., Andrew J. Rotherham, and Charles R. Hokanson, Jr., May 2001
Patrick Wolf is an assistant professor of public policy at the Graduate Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University.