Special Ed Bill Brings Valuable Reforms, No Choice

Published June 1, 2003

Being the parent of a disabled child can never be an easy task, and the rules governing the federal special education system often add onerous new levels to the challenge. Special education teachers, too, have expressed concerns about disability education law. And increasingly, concerns have been raised about non-disabled children finding themselves stuck in special education classes after being incorrectly diagnosed as disabled.

A bill to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed the House floor on April 30 and aims to address those concerns. The measure was developed by House Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Michael Castle (R-Delaware) and several colleagues.


Education Secretary Rod Paige, Castle, and others have expressed concern about widespread misidentification and mislabeling, especially of minority students.

“For minority students, misclassification or inappropriate placement in special education programs can have significant adverse consequences, particularly when these students are being removed from regular education settings and denied access to the core curriculum,” said Paige at an earlier hearing on the subject.

The reauthorization bill includes a number of important reforms designed to address the mislabeling of children as disabled. One prominent change is to end reliance on controversial “IQ discrepancy” models for identifying children with disabilities. Schools must not “use any single measure or assessment as the sole criterion” for labeling a child as disabled, and assessments must be “selected and administered so as not to be discriminatory on a racial or cultural basis.”

Another prominent change is to emphasize early intervention strategies. These interventions would be aimed at correcting reading deficiencies before children are–sometimes incorrectly–identified as disabled. School districts will be granted flexibility to use up to 15 percent of their federal IDEA funds for such pre-referral services. Lawmakers anticipate this change would help children avoid becoming trapped in a system that appears to worry little about whether students ever graduate from special education programs.

Representative Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) offered an amendment that sought to change the definition for the largest category of disability, Specific Learning Disability, to require any diagnosis be based on physical and scientific evidence and not on “subjective criteria.” The measure, which met with acrimony from much of the disability community, was soundly defeated.


The reauthorization bill also includes measures to better address the needs of parents. One important change is to strengthen parents’ control over decisions regarding their children’s education by allowing them to bypass process-heavy regulations pertaining to children’s Individualized Education Programs.

The measure also prohibits requiring parents to administer behavior-altering medication as a condition of their child’s attendance at school. These medications include powerful stimulants like Ritalin, classified under Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act. Recent studies have documented a rise in the pediatric use of these drugs, a trend that has been the subject of hearings before both Congress and the National Council for Bioethics.

“The decision to medicate a child belongs in the hands of parents and their child’s pediatrician or psychiatrist, not public school system administrators,” explained Representative Max Burns (R-Georgia), who sponsored this provision. “No parent should be forced to medicate a child in order for that child to attend school.”


The bill, HR 1350, offers new relief to special education teachers by reducing the heavy paperwork demands currently placed on them. For example, the bill offers parents the option of extending the timeframe of their child’s Individualized Education Plan to three years; currently, IEPs must be completely rewritten every year.

Teachers also would benefit from provisions that ease federal regulations dictating how school officials are permitted to discipline special education students. The new rules would allow uniform discipline for all children. School officials would be permitted to suspend special education students if necessary to ensure school safety.

School Choice

The most prominent casualty of the House vote on the reauthorization measure was school choice for children with disabilities. Traditional opponents of choice had joined disability advocates to form a unified coalition opposed to choice in special education.

Representative Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) sponsored the leading choice proposal, defeated by a vote of 240-182. The DeMint plan would have allowed states to develop new, customized education systems for children with special needs and would have permitted plans modeled after Florida’s McKay scholarship program. Following the vote, DeMint voiced dismay at the outcome.

“If there has ever been an opportunity to make a good, rational, and compassionate argument for money following students, it is in the area of special education,” he said. “More than any other, special needs students require customized, personalized service.”

A second choice plan, authored by Representative Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colorado), lost by a similar margin.

One harshly worded letter attacking the measure was signed by 36 groups, including the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, National PTA, Council for Exceptional Children, and People for the American Way.

“It would be inappropriate to fund any voucher program,” the letter said, “since they lack scientific, research-based evidence of effectiveness.”

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