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House Approves Bill to Increase Funding for Special Education

May 01, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved Republican-crafted legislation to reshape education programs for disabled students -- an area of school reform perennially controversial among parents and educators.

House Republicans said that their bill, passed 251 to 171, would free time and money for teachers to give extra help to children in special education programs and prevent other students from being incorrectly identified as learning-disabled.

Most Democrats opposed the bill, saying it failed to protect the rights of disabled children. They also said it fell short of a guarantee of adequate federal funding to cash-strapped local school districts.

The bill, backed by President Bush, now heads to the Senate. A compromise is probably months away.

At issue is an update to a landmark 1975 law that guarantees equal access to a "free and appropriate" public education for 6.5 million disabled students. Before that act was passed, many disabled students had been shunted aside by school systems that were either unwilling or unable to provide programs to meet their needs.

Despite sizable increases in federal funding for special education in recent years, many school districts still assert that they don't have enough money to meet the federal mandate.

Currently, Washington reimburses states for about 18% of the cost of special education programs -- or $8.9 billion a year. The bill approved Wednesday would authorize increases of $2.2 billion in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and an additional $2.5 billion in the following year, to bring the federal subsidy up to 25% by 2005. Republicans say they are aiming for a 40% subsidy within seven years.

But those authorizations are goals, not guarantees. Democrats tried, and failed, to persuade Republicans to make special education a mandatory part of the federal budget.

"What we are asking for is to ensure that children with disabilities have the accommodations, the aides, the qualified teachers, the curriculum and other things they need to receive a quality education," said Rep. George Miller of Martinez, top Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

He said the money at issue is "chump change" compared with the tax cuts Republicans have supported in recent years.

Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the committee, replied: "Turning special education into a new entitlement spending program would be an unmitigated disaster for children and teachers, who have waited years for meaningful education reform."

Boehner also said that Congress has accelerated special education funding since Republicans retook the House in 1995.

The bill was endorsed by several national groups representing school administrators, school boards and teachers; it was opposed by disability rights advocates, who criticized it as failing to ensure protections for some of the most vulnerable students in the school system.

All but one member of California's Republican delegation voted in favor of the bill. Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas did not vote. Most California Democrats opposed the bill, although Democratic Reps. Dennis A. Cardoza of Atwater, Calvin M. Dooley of Visalia and Jane Harman of Venice supported it. Also not voting were Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) and Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose).

Among many changes, the bill would alter the special education system to:

* Reduce documentation required for tracking disabled students;

* Allow some additional money to be spent helping younger children with reading and other basic skills, in an effort to prevent "misidentification" of students as learning-disabled;

* Boost training for special education teachers;

* Encourage mediation of complaints instead of litigation.

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