Special Ed Reauthorization Prompts Reforms

Published May 1, 2003

Congress’ review of federal special education laws–its largest scheduled piece of education business this year–has launched numerous reform plans as the legislation heads toward important committee votes.


The magnitude of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is apparent in the program’s size, cost, and complexity:

  • Nearly one in eight U.S. schoolchildren is currently considered disabled.
  • One study estimated more than $77 billion is spent annually to provide education for students with disabilities.
  • Federal laws and regulations governing special education are among the most complicated and bureaucratic of any in the federal code.

Many policymakers, however, have expressed greatest concern not over the size of special education programs, but their rapid rate of growth. Not only has the number of students labeled as disabled grown by more than one-third over the past decade, but the growth has accelerated across many constituencies and categories of disability.

The number of students labeled “learning disabled” has doubled over the past two decades as a percentage of the special-ed population. The number labeled “emotionally disturbed” has tripled.

Misidentification and Under-identification

House Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Michael Castle (R-Delaware) notes “current methods of identifying children with disabilities lack validity or reliability.” This has resulted in widespread misidentification and mislabeling, especially of minority students.

Nearly half of all children identified as disabled are labeled as having “specific learning disabilities.” Of these, upwards of 80 percent are classed this way primarily because of reading difficulties, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Such mislabeling is largely a reflection of schools’ ineffectiveness at teaching students to read, but it carries long-term risks for the children involved. In effect, they become part of a second-tier education track where they are significantly less likely to graduate from high school.

Congressional testimony has indicated the current system of identification also results in an under-identification of minority children with other disabilities in certain states and school districts.

Reform Proposals

Castle introduced his committee’s broad proposal for reforming the present IDEA system in April. The Improving Education Results for Children with Disabilities Act spans 292 pages and offers a range of policy prescriptions. These include:

Emphasizing early intervention strategies aimed at correcting reading deficiencies before children are identified as disabled. School districts would be granted flexibility to use up to 15 percent of their federal IDEA funds for such pre-referral services.

Strengthening parents’ control over decisions regarding their child’s education by allowing them to bypass process-heavy regulations pertaining to the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Eliminating “IQ discrepancy” models for identifying children with disabilities.

Reducing heavy paperwork demands currently placed on special education teachers.

Easing federal regulations dictating how school officials are permitted to discipline special education students. The new rules would allow uniform discipline for all children and would no longer prohibit school officials from expelling or suspending special education students when they consider it necessary to ensure school safety.

New Choice Options

Both Senate and House Education Committee chairmen–Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) and John Boehner (R-Ohio)–have pledged support for expanding parental choice for families with disabled children. Representative Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) introduced such a proposal, the Improving Parental Choice for Students with Disabilities Act, as an amendment to the IDEA reform bill.

DeMint’s plan encourages states to develop choice programs similar to Florida’s McKay scholarship program and allows federal funds to follow children to whichever public, private, or parochial school their parents choose. A proposal introduced last year by Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) adopts a similar approach.

“If there has ever been an opportunity to make a good, rational, compassionate argument for money following students, it is in the area of special education, because the whole idea of children with special needs is the importance of giving them customized, personalized service,” declared DeMint at a Capitol Hill conference in March.

Another proposed amendment, sponsored by Representative Max Burns (R-Georgia), seeks to protect children and their parents from being coerced into administering behavior-altering medication in order to attend school. These medications include the powerful stimulants Ritalin and Adderall, classified under Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act.

Bipartisan Support

Boasting a strong bipartisan slate of cosponsors–including Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), Chairmen Boehner and Castle, and California Democrats Diane Watson and Loretta Sanchez–the IDEA reform plan was expected to prevail in committee as this issue went to press.

Many of the reforms have their origins in findings issued last year by President George W. Bush’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education. At the March Capitol Hill conference, C. Todd Jones, a Department of Education official who previously served as the commission’s executive director, described Bush’s interest in using those findings as a starting point for administration policy. Administration officials have been working with Congressional staff to model a proposal after the report’s conclusions.

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