Realizing the spirit of IDEA

Special education is receiving a lot of attention these days. The federal program to provide special accommodations and services to students with disabilities has been critiqued by a Presidential Commission, by multiple authors of a Thomas B. Fordham Foundation/Progressive Policy Institute volume, and by both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Although there is some overlap in opinions about how IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) should be reformed, Democrats (and a certain Independent Senator) tend to argue that the system is merely under-funded, Republicans that it fails to deliver clear results, and less partisan academics that it is over-regulated and obsessed with proceduralism.

Into the fray recently jumped Congressman Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-CA) with HR 5001, the "Realizing the Spirit of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act." His basic proposal is to allow states to earn their way to full funding of the federal share of special education by narrowing various yawning outcome gaps between their regular and special-needs student populations.

In the U.S. today, special education primarily takes the form of an under-funded federal mandate. Federal laws bestow upon disabled students certain rights regarding their education. These include the right to a diagnosis by a trained professional to determine if the child suffers from a disabling condition that affects learning. Students diagnosed with a disability are then guaranteed a "free and appropriate public education" at taxpayer expense. Congress once "pledged" to pay 40% of the additional cost of educating students with disabilities. However, that promise is not an entitlement, and federal appropriators have never come close to reimbursing states and localities for 40% of the actual difference between special education and regular education expenses. The Fiscal-Year 2002 federal appropriation for special education will cover only an estimated 16.5% of the $50 billion in additional costs for special education.

A second problem with special education is that we have little idea what is being accomplished with those $50 billion. Prior to the 1997 amendments to IDEA, states and localities were not required to test special-needs students to assess their academic progress. Consequently, few jurisdictions conducted rigorous assessments. The 1997 amendments broke new ground by requiring that states include as many special education students as possible in their state assessments and report their performance. However, the law contains so many opt-outs, waivers, and weak penalties for non-compliance that few states have taken it seriously. HR 5001 seeks to change that undesirable state of affairs.

Congressman Stark's proposal applies the basic principle of "pay-for-performance" to the funding of special education. States that narrow the performance gap between special and regular education students in (1) academic achievement, (2) attendance, (3) retention, (4) high school graduation, or (5) post-secondary employment or education would receive annual bonuses of 0.2-1% in federal funding for each gap narrowed, depending on the amount of ground made up, to a maximum of 5% per year. A state that consistently and substantially narrowed all five gaps would achieve the Holy Grail of 40% federal funding within five years. States would never experience a reduction in their percentage of federal funding for special education, which would change from an annual appropriation to an entitlement. We could be confident that states wouldn't perversely attempt to "back into" gap-narrowing by sabotaging their regular education programs, since doing so would risk tough sanctions under the recently-enacted No Child Left Behind Act.

HR 5001 also contains a number of specific provisions to enhance the validity of performance numbers. The average gap on each measure for the preceding three years would be used as the baseline for measuring progress in subsequent years. At least 90% of a state's special education population must be included in the calculation of each performance level. Students diagnosed as qualifying for special education would remain in that category, for purposes of calculating performance, for the remainder of their schooling, and any testing accommodations afforded to them would remain consistent year after year.

HR 5001 is not likely to satisfy every special ed reformer. Once states attain the 40% federal funding level, full funding is guaranteed in perpetuity, thus removing any financial incentive for further gains. Educational achievement is not especially privileged in the bonus calculations, as states could gain as much by boosting the attendance of special education students as by demonstrating increases in their actual learning. More importantly, HR 5001 does nothing to change the current system of procedural over-regulation that steers resources away from the special education classroom and into meetings, official forms, administrator salaries, and judicial proceedings. Nor does it enhance parental choices. If the analysts are right, however, and the rigidities and cumbersome oversight systems of special education are interfering with the ability of educators to obtain results for special-needs students, then Congressman Stark's proposal would create incentives for special educators and administrators to join reformers in trying to trim back the red tape. As such, HR 5001 may, in the long run, accomplish its professed goal of realizing the spirit of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In my opinion, it at least represents a reasonable place to start the reform debate regarding the reauthorization of IDEA.

Patrick J. Wolf is an assistant professor of public policy at Georgetown University and has testified before Congress regarding the reform of special education.

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Two papers co-authored by Patrick Wolf and Bryan Hassel appear in Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, published by the Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute in 2001. See "Effectiveness and Accountability (Part 1): The Compliance Model" and "Effectiveness and Accountability (Part 2): Alternatives to the Compliance Model" at http://www.edexcellence.net/doc/special_ed_final.pdf.

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