Revamping IDEA-Ology; Disabilities Education Act Must Be Renewed, reformed.(OPED)

Article excerpt


When well-intentioned members of Congress rely too heavily on the written word - whether through written testimonies, voluminous reports, or complex legal language to address a pressing national need - the ensuing legislative solution doesn't always accomplish the new law's intent. Having been in a position to affect policy for more than two decades, I know of the unintended consequences we faced over the years in Head Start, juvenile justice and bilingual education, to name a few.

As the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce from 1995 to 2001, I know first-hand that understanding real life needs and trying to address them through effective public policy has proven most difficult with special-education programs. Spend time with a child with a disability, or a parent, or a school principal, weary with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and you'll be taught more than the written word could ever provide.

This law, first enacted in 1975, is up for renewal by Congress. And, of course, Congress must rely on the written word to translate life experiences into life-transforming polices. This year Congress is again working to improve the law to more closely meet the needs of those with learning and physical disabilities while making it more user-friendly to all who have to meet its requirements.

As chief author of the law's last reauthorization, I'm hearing from all sides in this debate that the changes we made in 1997, after much consensus-building among very strong points of view, are just now beginning to generate improvements. In fact, this regulation-burdened law didn't have new rules finalized until almost two years after its enactment.

In my judgment, while major surgery is not warranted on a law that is still being implemented, there are some issues the House and Senate should address based on what is actually happening today in classrooms and homes across America. Those issues can be categorized with three words - money, diagnosis and training. Money usually gets people's attention, so let's take that first.

When we first enacted IDEA 27 years ago, we promised that the federal government would, in an effort to somewhat ease the burden of this huge federal program, provide schools with 40 percent of the average cost to educate non-disabled students. Until 1995 that federal contribution hovered around six to eight percent, a woeful shortfall in meeting this goal.

Under Republican leadership over the last seven years, Congress has providedmore meaningful fiscal relief to school districts and taxpayers burdened with the escalating costs of educating a child with a diagnosed disability. Between 1995 and 1998, we provided a 77 percent increase in funding. Today, with annual increases of greater than $1 billion, we are up to 17 percent of the promised 40 percent.

In 1997, we sought to align more closely IDEA student performance to general educational standards and curricula. This was a good first step, and we need to keep moving forward. There needs to be a meaningful, self-fulfilling life for each student after IDEA. Preparing them for that eventuality early and continually in the classroom and in job preparation should be a renewed focus of IDEA. …