There are six million students, ages 6 to 21, who receive special educational services for physical or mental learning disabilities. As Congress works to update the 27-year-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it needs to ask if these children are being properly educated, or just categorized and processed.
The Bush administration proposes more spending in exchange for stronger accountability and better results. The aim is to narrow the achievement gap between special-needs and regular students. Schools are required to test special-needs students for academic progress, but the system allows many opt-outs and waivers.
Reform arguments swirl around three points:
Money: President Bush proposes an extra $1 billion for 2004, bringing federal spending for IDEA to $9.4 billion. States want much more. Congress once pledged to pay up to 40 percent of the additional cost of educating students with disabilities. So far, the states say, Washington is covering less than 17 percent of the some $50 billion in extra costs for special education.
Identification: Many say special education offers too little, too late. They say some students are mislabeled simply because they haven't been taught to read in early grades.
Vouchers: Some GOP leaders say making all special-ed students eligible for vouchers would allow them more freedom to find programs that fit their specific needs. It also would address schools' complaints that special education costs consume too much of their budgets.
Because of IDEA, millions of children with disabilities now are learning and achieving at levels previously thought impossible. But it is time to shift the focus from process to results and stop pitting frustrated parents against frustrated schools. We need to design a better system to diagnose and educate these vulnerable students and verify their progress.
Four major federal education bills are due for reauthorization and change in the coming year - early childhood education, special education, higher education and vocational/technical education. Congressional hearings have started as President Bush and his supporters push for more accountability and result-oriented reforms in these cornerstones of the American educational system. This is the second in a series of editorials explaining these debates.
Legislature: Coalition of the willing
Mentally ill: Diversion programs
Education debate: Special ed
Panelists relish their column-writing stint
Wanted: A few good writers for local voices
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Head Start model has been effective
Hawks and doves sound off