GOP Wants Special Education Overhaul

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House Republicans are urging colleagues to cut proposed increases for special education, saying the system must be fixed before the government pours billions more into it.

The request comes as House and Senate lawmakers negotiate the details of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides most of the federal money for K-12 education. The House and Senate approved separate versions last spring, and hope to give President Bush a compromise version this fall.

The Senate version includes an amendment, proposed by Democrats, that mandates $8.8 billion next year for special education programs -- $2.5 billion more than this year. The House version does not address the issue, but the House budget includes $1 billion more for special education in fiscal 2002 -- the same amount Bush requested.

Under the terms of the Senate bill, the federal government would give schools an additional $2.5 billion each year until 2007, when funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would reach just over $21 billion.

In a letter circulating among lawmakers, Republicans say the huge increases proposed by the Senate would slow reform of the system. Special education programs were criticized earlier this year in a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which found that black children are three times as likely as whites to be placed in such programs.

"Providing schools with a huge guaranteed funding stream will provide little incentive for schools to improve services to minority children," the letter reads. It is signed by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who heads the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and by six other Republicans.

Democrats say the special education system, which was overhauled by Congress in 1997, hasn't been given enough time to produce the results that Republicans seek, including changes in how many minority students are included.

"The notion that increased IDEA funding will lure school districts into intentionally overidentifying children for special education is absurd," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "Even if IDEA is fully funded, there is still no financial incentive to overidentify, because it's always going to cost the school district more than the federal government will ever provide."

Schools have long complained that the federal government requires them to educate children with disabilities but doesn't give them enough money for expensive evaluations, equipment and services.

IDEA, enacted in 1975, called for Washington to provide 40 percent of funding for disabled youngsters' education. This year the federal government provided about 15 percent, or $6.3 billion. Separately funded programs provide money for children younger than 5 years old, as well as for teacher training.

States and school districts share a much larger burden. While accurate government figures are not available, the California-based Center for Special Education Finance estimates that they spend $50 billion to $60 billion annually on all special education programs.

About 6 million children receive special education funding, which pays for school instruction and help for everything from dyslexia to paralysis to blindness. The money also pays for the voluminous paperwork required to keep track of children's progress.

The Senate amendment was introduced by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

"Local school districts have been waiting for 26 years for the federal government to step up to the plate and provide their fair share of funding," Harkin said Friday. "This is just one last excuse as to why they should wait even longer."

Vermont Senator James Jeffords, a longtime special education advocate, made increased funding his key demand in White House negotiations over Bush's tax cut. Jeffords cited the need for more school spending when he left the Republican Party last May.