Senate Approves IDEA Reforms, Greenspan Addresses Education Needs

Published July 1, 2004

By a strong bipartisan margin, the Senate on May 13 passed its version of reforms to the nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The House passed its version of IDEA reauthorization 12 months ago, with 34 Democrats voting in support of the bill.

Since the House and Senate bills differ, Congressional leadership will appoint a conference committee to reconcile the two versions. The resulting plan would then need to be approved by both legislative bodies this year to be eligible for signature by President George W. Bush, or the entire IDEA reform process would need to restart next year.

While the two versions differ in substantive ways, veteran staffers believe there is a good chance the reauthorization will become law in the current session.

“There are differences, but they are not insurmountable ones,” said House Education Committee spokesman Dave Schnittger. “The President deserves the chance to sign a bill into law this year and we’re going to make every conceivable effort to give him that opportunity.”

A similar down-to-the-wire scenario occurred in the mid-1990s, when closed-session negotiations between House and Senate conferees resulted in the 1997 IDEA reauthorization.

Representative Michael Castle (R-Delaware), the primary author of the House bill, was upbeat in his description of the Senate version.

“The [Senate] legislation includes crucial reforms to ensure that students across the country in special education programs are receiving a quality education and puts the federal government on a glide path to increasing funding for IDEA,” he said.

Prior to the Senate vote, an amendment for “mandatory full funding” for special education was defeated 56-41, four votes short of the 60 votes needed to carry the measure. Instead, the Senate approved a plan to boost discretionary funding for the program by $2.3 billion.

While the Senate version omits some of the reforms passed by the House, it contains a number of other changes to IDEA, including the following:

  • Language authored by Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) to reduce paperwork requirements for special education teachers.
  • An optional three-year Individualized Education Program that parents and schools would review annually; the current system requires these long and complex plans to be redrafted from scratch every year.
  • Definitions for “highly qualified teacher” that would require new special education teachers to obtain state special education certifications and to pass state subject knowledge tests in reading, writing, and math.
  • An emphasis on early intervention strategies aimed at correcting reading deficiencies before children are identified as disabled. This reform, which also appears in the House bill, would grant flexibility to school districts to use up to 15 percent of their federal IDEA funds for these pre-referral services.

Greenspan Sees Education Needs
Experienced observers of the Federal Reserve have for nearly two decades scrutinized Chairman Alan Greenspan’s measured language and deliberate prose. But in his May remarks at the Chicago Fed, there was little nuance to the importance he placed on education.

“Your futures will depend on your conceptual abilities,” he told an audience that included many graduating high school seniors. Stressing the importance of a strong foundation in education basics–verbal and numerical literacy and communications skills–he predicted most of them would lose their job at some point and need to be retrained rapidly for another.

“It is critical that you productively employ your current learning experiences to create the base capabilities necessary for continuing your education into your mature years,” Greenspan said.

The chairman went on to suggest the nation’s community colleges will play an increasingly important role in that retraining in the coming years. Bush’s currently proposed budget includes a $250 million boost for job training programs at community colleges.

Greenspan’s remarks were reminiscent of comments on higher education he had made in March, both in Congressional testimony and to a Boston College conference the following day. Both speeches cited research showing that while U.S. fourth-grade students perform above average in math and science, those same students fall “well below” the international average by the end of high school.

“We appear to be graduating too few skilled workers to address the apparent imbalance between the supply of such workers and the burgeoning demand for them,” Greenspan told the House Education and the Workforce Committee on March 11.

“Societal changes have been numerous and profound, and our schools are being asked to do a great deal more than they have in the past,” he said. “We need to be forward-looking in order to adapt our educational system to the evolving needs of the economy and the realities of our changing society.”

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

For more information …

The testimony of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce on March 11, 2004 is available online at