Presidential Commission Reports on Special Education

Published August 30, 2002

A Presidential panel in July established markers that may prove crucial as Congress undertakes its reauthorization of special-education programs over the coming months.

In its report, “A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Their Families,” the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education highlighted several areas it found to be in need of substantial change.

The report illuminates several instances where current federal law fails to help disabled children, making it more difficult for them to receive essential services.

The bipartisan Commission called for implementing a new system for providing all parents with meaningful information about their children’s progress, based on objective performance measures. It also called for making funds from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) available to parents when their children are not making progress. Parents would be permitted to use the funds to place their children in different schools or contract for services of their own choosing.

House Testimony

In testimony before the House Education Committee, Commission Chairman Terry Branstad, governor of Iowa, described the current system as one of “process over results and compliance over student achievement,” with “incentives for misidentification of students.”

“When a child fails to make progress in special education, parents don’t have adequate options,” the Commission reported. “Parents have their child’s best interests in mind, but they often do not feel they are empowered when the system fails them.”

The Commission’s report quotes economist Julie Berry Cullen, who found increased funding for special-education services does not result in improvements in the quality of special-education programs. The increased funding does, however, result in increased identification rates for certain high-incidence disabilities.

The Commission’s findings affirm the need for consequential reform in many areas of special education. For instance, the Commission found minority children, especially African-Americans, are over-represented in certain categories of disability, such as mental retardation and emotional disturbance. There has been an “explosive growth,” noted the Commission, in the number of students classified with other disabilities, including those labeled learning disabled.

The Senate Education Committee also heard testimony from Branstad on the Commission’s findings.


Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education Committee, questioned Branstad regarding possible remedies for the overidentification of students into special education. The Commission concluded most children are identified into special education as the result of teacher referral. Branstad stressed improving the preparation and training of these teachers should be a crucial element of reform.

In a June hearing, the House Committee heard testimony from its retired chairman, former Representative Bill Goodling, who presided over the previous IDEA reauthorization. Goodling encouraged members to reconsider several reforms that passed the House in 1997 but were rejected by the Senate. He described the current law as “regulation-burdened” and noted IDEA funding has nearly tripled over the past six years.

Opportunity for Reform

The bipartisan Commission based its findings on an extensive series of hearings in several cities on various aspects of special-education law. Both Congress and the White House signaled they would wait for the report before proceeding with plans to reauthorize special-education programs.

With the Commission’s findings as a starting point, policymakers have a unique opportunity to repair key special-education programs. Democratic and Republican leaders have expressed hope that such timely reforms will extend the important advances of the No Child Left Behind Act to serve all students receiving special-education services.

Federal Tax Credits

Also in July, Congressman Bob Schaffer (R-Colorado) introduced two prominent pieces of school reform legislation.

The first, the Back to School Education Tax Relief Act (HR 5193) would extend the $3,000 deduction for higher education expenses enacted last year as part of President George W. Bush’s tax relief package. The extension would cover qualified K-12 expenses for lower-income families including tuition, books, and transportation at public, private, parochial, or home schools. Families with adjusted gross incomes of $40,000 or less would qualify, as would individuals with incomes less than $20,000. The bill was scheduled for markup in the House Ways and Means Committee in late July.

Schaffer’s second bill, the Education Freedom Act (HR 5192), introduced a tax credit for donations by individuals or corporations to qualified scholarship organizations, called “education investment organizations,” or to public and private schools. Although two Democrats, Representatives William Lipinski (D-Illinois) and Ronnie Shows (D-Mississippi), agreed to cosponsor the legislation, it was not expected to be considered by the Ways and Means Committee this year.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The report from the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education is available online at

The full text of Congressman Bob Schaffer’s two bills is available at the Thomas Web site. Point your Web browser to and search for bill no. HB 5192 or HB 5193.