Congress Takes Up Special-Education Reform

Published July 1, 2002

With last year’s No Child Left Behind Act now in the hands of state and local officials for action, Washington lawmakers are turning to this year’s major piece of education business, reauthorizing the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

As with regular K-12 education, parental choice will be part of the discussion, and lawmakers already have heard testimony regarding a rapidly expanding voucher program for special-education students in Florida.

Hearings of the House and Senate education committees so far have focused on assessing particular areas of need. Meanwhile, the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education is moving forward with its own proceedings, and is reportedly on schedule to deliver its official findings by July 1.

President George W. Bush vowed during his campaign to raise high school graduation rates for students in special education, and to take steps to improve their readiness for higher education or the job market.

To this end, a Presidential commission has conducted a series of hearings to examine each major facet of special education. Hearings have been held in Coral Gables (Florida), Denver, Des Moines, Houston, Nashville, New York City, San Diego, and Washington, DC. The commission has examined such issues as accountability in special education, cost effectiveness of special-education funding, identification of children with learning disabilities, paperwork burdens, litigation, and teacher quality.

“No longer is it simply enough to provide our disabled children access to public schools,” said Representative Michael Castle, chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee, expressing his reform priorities to his panel. “Now, more than ever, we must do more to see that disabled children are given access to an education that maximizes their unique abilities and provides them with the tools for later success.”

One key witness addressing the question of bringing greater accountability to special education has been Larry Gloeckler, New York State Deputy Commissioner for Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities.

Gloeckler testified before both the House Education Committee and the President’s Commission on the progress his program has made in upgrading the quality of reporting for academic gains made by special-education students. He described how the New York Education Department has made it a priority not only to eliminate unnecessary referrals to special education, but also to assure that those students who no longer need special services—or have been placed in special education unnecessarily—are returned to mainstream classrooms in a timely manner.

Achievement Gap

Increased accountability, while certainly a valuable tool for policymakers, educators, and parents, often provokes controversy, as the New York data produced by Gloeckler’s office has shown. For example, data showing how New York City students with disabilities lagged significantly behind the rest of the state’s disabled population made headlines, and produced increased pressure on city officials to explain the gap.

Other data showed a wide achievement gap among different groups in the Big Apple’s disabled population. While 36 percent of white and 37 percent of Asian special-education students passed the state’s fourth-grade standardized math exam, only 18 percent of Hispanic and 12 percent of black special-education students passed the same test.

Special Education Vouchers

Both the commission and the House Education Committee also heard testimony about Florida’s innovative John M. McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, which introduces parental choice to special education. Harvard professor of economics Caroline M. Hoxby advocated to the commission’s Coral Gables hearing that an ideal special-education system would be one “in which disabled children are able to exercise maximum choice and would not ever be segregated in schools involuntarily and schools have incentives to educate disabled children efficiently.”

Before the House Education Committee in May, Dr. W. Douglas Tynan of the DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware pursued this concept further.

“The use of vouchers would also help reduce the current adversarial nature of special education,” Tynan testified. Such a system, he suggested, would let parents seek out schools with the greatest success at teaching children with their child’s particular disability, and would also eliminate the need for costly appeals.


The Senate Education Committee began its reauthorization proceedings with a hearing in April on discipline for special-education students. It examined the question of whether federal regulations interfere with the ability of principals and other school officials to discipline special-education students, and in particular those involved with dangerous infractions involving guns or drugs. Under current law, students enrolled in special education may not be expelled or suspended for any prolonged period unless school officials can first prove the violation is not a manifestation of the child’s disability.

Senior congressional staff expressed confidence that both chambers could pass legislation this year. But many observers have suggested this is overly optimistic due to election year partisanship.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Don Soifer’s report for the Lexington Institute, “Special Education Reform 2002: Where to Begin,” is available at the institute’s Web site at

Lewis M. Andrews conducted a study recently for the Yankee Institute on the use of vouchers for disabled children in other countries. A June, 2002 School Reform News report on the study is available on the Internet. The study itself, “More Choice for Disabled Kids: Lessons from Abroad,” is available at the Yankee Institute Web site at