Washington Education Watch: No Rest for the Weary

In case you thought mauling President Bush's ESEA plan was the only education business facing the 107th Congress, think again. A big sign belongs over the Beltway saying "Caution: Special Ed Ahead." By October 2002, Senate and House are supposed to reauthorize the expiring portions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which drives most special education policy in the U.S. (though many states have also enacted their own laws). As with ESEA, the big question is whether policymakers will opt for tweaking the status quo or for making the fundamental reforms that it sorely needs.

Now a quarter century old, IDEA and its antecedents have done great good in reducing discrimination against disabled youngsters and providing them with a "free appropriate" education in the "least restrictive environment," those being the program's core precepts.

Yet this program is also beset by serious failures, archaic assumptions and troubling side effects. The problems you're most apt to hear discussed-they have lately obsessed governors and Congressmen-involve its high cost (driven largely by federal mandates although Washington reimburses only a small fraction of the expense) and its "double standard" for student discipline. But those are just the tip of this iceberg. Consider, too, that many of IDEA's beneficiaries are poorly served by it; that the number of those beneficiaries has doubled in recent years; that it's entangled in ungodly red tape; that it's adversarial and litigious, often more lawyer friendly than child friendly; that it focuses more on difficult, costly "compensatory" and "accommodation" strategies than on prevention and early intervention; that it complicates the running of coherent, mission-centered schools; that it focuses on regulating procedures and services rather than demanding results; and that, in general, it operates more like a bureaucratized civil rights enforcement regime left from the mid-seventies than an education program tailored to the standards-and-achievement era of the early 21st century.

The biggest problem with federal special education policy, though, is that few people will even talk about these things. As if treading on political eggshells, everybody tiptoes around IDEA's problems for fear someone will accuse them of insufficient empathy for children with special needs. Special ed has often been termed a "third rail" issue, one that politicians and policymakers touch only at their peril.

That seemed to us at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and our colleagues at the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), derring-do gadflies that we are, reason enough to launch the next IDEA reauthorization cycle with a close look, candid analysis and suggestions for reforming this important program. In our view, disabled children (like all children) are better served by an honest examination of what's working than by deference to taboo, custom and shibboleth. So earlier this month we and PPI published a plump volume entitled Rethinking Special Education for a New Century. It consists of fifteen essays by scholars, practitioners and journalists, examining special education policy and practice from various angles and offering our own views about what needs fixing and some guidelines by which to commence that repair process. We learn from this research, for example, that as many as two million special-ed children diagnosed with "reading disabilities" could have had their reading problems prevented and/or overcome by suitable early intervention-but the current program downplays that approach.

The volume's final chapter highlights eight "policy failures in need of attention" and offers six principles for reform. Here is the super shorthand version of those principles: Make IDEA standards- and performance-based. Streamline the number of special education categories. Focus on prevention and early intervention. Encourage flexibility, innovation and choices. Provide adequate funding. End double standards.

Easier said than done, to be sure. But, we judge, the right way to begin to think about this key program, now serving some six million youngsters, including many who are very needy indeed.

Will Washington policymakers have the gumption for basic reform of IDEA? Based on the ESEA experience, we'd have to say don't count on it. But maybe you will want to persuade those you know at least to open the matter for consideration.

If you're on our snail-mail list, the postman will soon deliver a hard copy of Rethinking Special Education.

NB: Don't exhale yet. Looming on the congressional agenda even before special ed is reauthorization of Uncle Sam's research, statistics, assessment and program evaluation activities. Of course it's harder to get people to focus on these low-visibility endeavors than on big, costly programs like ESEA and IDEA, but they're important, too. And they, too, need a fundamental overhaul. Watch this space.

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