House Backs Vast Changes In Education For Disabled Children

WASHINGTON, April 30 – The House today passed major changes to the laws governing special education for some 6.6 million children, while voting down amendments that would have eased the way for disabled children to attend private school at taxpayer expense.

The bill, which updates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is intended to reduce the number of students deemed learning disabled by helping struggling children earlier. It is also intended to cut down on the paperwork involved in special education, and reduce the legal expenses of states that face lawsuits from parents seeking extra help for disabled children. It passed 251 to 171, with 34 Democrats joining Republicans to support the bill.

“These children are still among those at the greatest risk of being left behind,” said Representative Michael N. Castle, the Delaware Republican who sponsored the bill. Despite the “many success stories” of disabled students educated under the current laws, he said, “there is room for improvement in serving children with disabilities.”

The bill charts spending for special education over the next seven years, putting Congress on course to pay up to 40 percent of the state cost for the education of disabled youngsters by 2011.

But the chairman of the House Education and Work Force Committee, Representative John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, blocked efforts by Democrats to make the federal contribution mandatory. Despite the absence of a guarantee on the entire federal contribution, organizations representing educators and school administrators strongly backed the bill.

The Council of the Great City Schools praised the bill for reducing paperwork and giving schools and teachers more flexibility. The National Association of Elementary School Principals also endorsed the changes, which make it easier for schools to expel disabled children for misbehaving.

Under existing law, disabled youngsters may be suspended for turning up in school with drugs, guns or other weapons. Today’s bill would allow schools to expel disabled students if they violate a school’s code of conduct, and schools would no longer be obligated to determine whether the misbehavior was connected to a child’s disability.

The bill also allows governors to limit the amount states pay the lawyers of parents who win cases that force local schools to pay for extra services.

Largely for those reasons, the Council for Exceptional Children, the Children’s Defense Fund, and other groups representing disabled children and their parents stood squarely against today’s bill.

“Those discipline provisions can create a nightmare, because we’re stripping away civil rights protections,” said Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children.

Moderate Republicans joined Democrats in opposing two separate amendments that would have expanded the ability of disabled children to pursue a private education with public funds, including one that would have given parents vouchers worth $1,400 toward their children’s tuition at a private school.

Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat from Long Island, said she was pleased that the voucher bids met defeat, but worried that the cap on lawyers’ fees will discourage lawyers from representing low-income children who are denied services.

“I’m a nurse,” said Ms. McCarthy, whose son is learning disabled. “As far as I’m concerned, we do no harm. I believe that the way this bill is written we’re going to do harm to our children and our parents.”

In 1976, when Congress first passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it promised the federal government would pay 40 percent of the state’s cost of educating children with disabilities.

Many advocates pushed for that promise to be enshrined in law this year. But Republicans argued that Democrats had never agreed to make the federal contribution mandatory when they controlled the House, and said that over the last year alone, the federal spending on special education has jumped 19 percent.

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee have been working over the last two years to put together a bipartisan bill on special education, which aides say will most likely be introduced in late May. They said the two parties agree on the need to reduce paperwork and track academic progress among disabled students. They will probably leave the most contentious issues, including vouchers, student discipline and making the federal contribution mandatory for a vote by the full Senate.

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