Parents and education advocates across the United States are urging the members of the U.S. Senate to halt consideration of a bill that would drastically change the federal special education law, known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Action on the Senate's bill, S. 1248, is anticipated next month.
Their worries are deeply rooted in a history of many years of open discrimination against students with disabilities. The U.S. House of Representatives passed its draconian IDEA reauthorization bill (H.R. 1350) in 2003, even after every major parent and teacher group opposed it. "H.R. 1350 literally turns the clock back 30 years, to a time when children with disabilities were excluded from our public schools and our public lives. This bill eliminates critical provisions of the current law, provisions that enable children with disabilities not only to enter our schoolhouse doors, but also to actually stay in school. What's the point of letting kids in, only to virtually guarantee that they'll be thrown right back out again? Students will soon suffer these consequences if the Senate passes its bill too," explains Sandy Alperstein, a parent and attorney from Illinois.
According to Tricia Luker, a parent and advocate for students with disabilities in Michigan, "The proposed legislation to change IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is so damaging to students and teachers that it should not become law. Congress needs to start over next year if they really do not want to leave 6.5 million students with disabilities behind." Luker continues, "We are already seeing militant reactions by schools, educators, and states protesting against the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Now Congress is putting America's most vulnerable students in further peril by writing legislation that will steal their educational rights away by removing essential protections for students and teachers that are now in IDEA."
Many parents are wondering why Congress is rewriting all of the IDEA legislation when most of it is not required. As Debi Lewis, a West Virginia parent and co-founder of an inclusion-oriented web site (www.psIDEA.org) accurately points out, "There are two key points that parents and advocates must remember and remind Congress at every opportunity. The first is that the '97 amendments already entailed significant compromise. The second is that Part B of the IDEA, where all the damaging revisions lie, does not require reauthorization at all. Congress needs to stop meddling with this finely tuned section of IDEA and simply reauthorize those parts which require it."
Susan Ross, a parent and activist for public education, agrees, "It is clear that Congress just doesn't understand any of this at all. They need to go back to the drawing board and do their homework first. This IDEA reauthorization is rapidly destroying the credibility of President Bush's entire education agenda, not to mention the lifelong damage that both of these bills stand to inflict on students."
Parents have every reason to be concerned. Decades of special education's best practice procedures will soon be made unavailable to students and teachers. "The Senate bill would eliminate some of the basic protections for students, and change the required individual education plans for each student by removing the short term educational step-by-step goals that are so helpful to both parents and teachers," according to Alperstein.
"Congress says it's changing the law to reduce paperwork for teachers, but teachers themselves say short term educational objectives are critically important," says Bev Johns, chairperson of the Illinois Special Education Coalition. "The U.S. Department of Education in 2003 paid for the Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education that surveyed special education teachers all across the country. The SPeNSE Paperwork Substudy report showed that short term student objectives are the 'most helpful in educating their students' and the second most important part of special education for teachers."
Dave Wong, a parent from California, couldn't agree with Johns more. Wong takes his explanation a step further by saying, "For many students referred to special education, barriers to learning are not strictly academic; they are emotionally and behaviorally based. The Senate has done better than the House on the topic of supporting students with behavior issues, but its work is far from complete. Provisions is in '97 statute are still better than those to be voted on this March. Measurable short term objectives, stay put protections for students, and positive behavior support strategies implemented with fidelity are essential components that must work in concert for these students not to be left behind, or worse, left out."
What makes all of this even more troubling for parents is that their due process rights, the provisions that allow for parents to advocate and hold schools accountable for promised actions, may be ripped out from under them. "Both the House and Senate are looking to dramatically tip the balance of power toward schools and away from students and families. Parents thought that with the No Child Left Behind Act they would be empowered to help hold schools accountable. Looks like they meant it for some selected kids, but not for the kids who may not be able to speak for themselves and need parent advocacy the most," says Mike Savory, an advocate and activist from Virginia.
Parents across the nation feel so strongly about these issues that many have joined forces in an effort to influence the upcoming elections. Larry Greenstein is a founding member of the League of Special Equation Voters of the United States, Inc. (www.SpEdVoters.org). The league is planning March events in Washington, D.C. to preserve the original IDEA's integrity. Greenstein reports, "The League of Special Education Voters opposes S. 1248 in its present form. We believe that the removal of short term objectives and the changes to the discipline provisions, stay-put provisions, and due process provisions will each have a significant negative impact on the education of all children. Throwing money at the problem is not the answer, and neither is basing accountability solely on yearly standardized testing. Education is a process, and the children must be the prime consideration in any system. The learning needs of children must come before the convenience of the educators."
The U.S. Department of Education web site (www.ed.gov/nolb) says that the No Child Left Behind Act" gives parents and children a lifeline." It also says that it "focuses on what works." However, parents feel that none of this is true when it comes to students with disabilities. They feel that their few viable lifelines are being destroyed by Congress and that "what works" for students with disabilities has never been a consideration in the IDEA reauthorization process.
"We hear a lot of talk about aligning the IDEA with No Child Left Behind. Could anything be more absurd? One law is all about individual students, whereas the other is all about groups of students. They're comparing apples to oranges," Lewis adds. "No Child Left Behind is intended to improve educational outcomes. I see absolutely nothing in either IDEA reauthorization bill that can be reasonably expected to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities. Virtually every revision is about administrative convenience, many to the detriment of the students."
For more parent friendly IDEA reauthorization information, visit www.ourchildrenleftbehind.com