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Conference Committee Votes on IDEA Reauthorization:
The Inside Story
by Jess Butler

Note: Jess Butler is an attorney and the parent of a child with a disability. She is a member of the Government Affairs Committee for The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and has been active in IDEA reauthorization matters on behalf of parents and the advocacy community.

U.S. CapitalOn Wednesday, November 17, 2004 the House-Senate Conference Committee on the Individuals with Disabilities Act met and voted to accept the Conference Report and bill. The meeting consisted mainly of speeches about the bill. Only Senator Jim Jeffords (D-Vt) voted against adopting the Conference Report.

Compromising on the IDEA

The Confereees compromised between the Senate bill, which some feel represents a reasonable compromise and preserved essential rights for children, and the House bill, which would have severely cut back on the IDEA. The bill should be available on Thursday, November 18. The House and senate are expected to vote on Friday, November 19. Assuming the bill passes in both Houses, it will go to the President for his signature.

Only one amendment was offered during the conference committee meeting. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) sought to amend the Conference Report to delay effective date of the Highly Qualified Teacher requirements by a year. This was defeated, with opposition coming largely from House Republicans and Democrats and Senate Democrats.

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Congressman John Boehner (R-OH) briefly discussed putting a provision into the Workforce Investment Act regarding job training and other transition services. Boehner expressed concerns about limiting it to the context of the Act.

Parents, Attorneys, Advocates & Children Attended

A number of parents, attorneys, and advocates attended the Conference meeting. Several wore Hawaiian leis. Senator Kennedy and his chief aide, Connie Garner, made a point of coming down to meet and thank the parents and the children who attended the meeting.

I sat with three children with disabilities. They were terrific kids who were very interested in the proceedings and asked lots of good questions. I could tell that the educations they had received under the IDEA prepared them well for this kind of event.

Connie Garner has done a terrific job with her Senate Republican counterpart, Denzel McGuire (and predecessor Annie White), working on the bill and also taking the time to listen to the views of everyone involved: parents, advocates, schools, and their representatives.

Senator Kennedy: "Children Have Hopes & Dreams"

During the Conference discussion, Senator Kennedy gave a terrific speech about IDEA and kids with disabilities. We've learned that children with disabilities "have hopes and dreams like everyone else;" and that they "want to be asked what they want to be when they grow up."

Today, all kids in American have a right to FAPE and no one can take that away, Kennedy pointed out. Sen. Kennedy acknowledged that this bill does change IDEA law and he knew this is causing anxiety for some parents in the audience, He explained, "This bill is a workable compromise to be implemented with the interests of the children in mind," and added that no child shall be punished for having a disability.

Rep. Boehner: "Every Child Deserves a High Quality Education - Children with Disabilities Are No Exception"

Rep. Boehner, Conference Committee Chair, explained the bill from his point of view. He asserted that it improved the outlook for kids with disabilities. He said that "every child deserves a high quality education and children with disabilities are no exception."

During the discussion of the Sessions amendment for highly qualified teachers, Rep. Boehner pointed out very strongly that kids with disabilities deserve highly-qualified teachers as much as anyone else.

Senator Gregg: "Children Have to Function in the Classroom"

Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH and HELP Committee Chair) thanked everyone for their work and for creating a bipartisan bill. Senator Gregg spoke of the need ensure educational opportunities for children with disabilities. Gregg said that the law should be sensitive to a child's disability, but that the child has to function in the classroom with other kids and there should be discipline in the classroom.

Senator Gregg worked closely with Senator Kennedy and other members of the Senate to craft a bipartisan bill that protects the rights of children with disabilities better than the initial House bill did.

Rep. Miller: "IDEA is a Pact We Will Never Abandon"

Rep. George Miller (D-CA, and House Ranking Member) gave a very strong speech. He had been"very disturbed" by the direction that the House bill had taken, and could not support it. But he was willing to support the reasonable compromise that the Conference bill represented. He explained that "IDEA is more than an educational bill...it is a pact that we will never abandon" for children with disabilities. "IDEA is a civil rights law. Children should not be punished for their disabilities and manifestation must be maintained," he added.

Rep. Woolsey: "Manifestation Was Protected"

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) fought hard for parents and children during the debate on the House floor and in the House subcommittee. Although there were parts of the bill she was not happy with, she felt the bill was a significant improvement over the initial House bill. She pointed out that manifestation was protected for girls and boys with disabilities.

Senator Harkin: "Bigotry & Discrimination Against Kids with Disabilities"

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) also spoke. He pointed out the importance of the groundbreaking PARC case, and that in enacting IDEA's predecessor in 1975, Congress recognized the bigotry and discrimination against kids with disabilities. "It's been a long time, and we may think we're over that," Harkin noted. He then pointed out a recent cartoon that made fun of a child with disabilities who was in the regular classroom, describing it as "egregious."

"The bigotry is still there and that is why strong measures are needed in IDEA," Harkin said, pointing out that IDEA is a civil rights bill.

"Why Should Children with Disabilities Have Teachers Who Are Not Highly Qualified?"

A debate about the Highly Qualified Teacher provisions followed. Senator Sessions and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) asked to delay its effective date by a year. Kennedy, Boehner, and Miller opposed the amendment strongly.

"Children are held accountable today. Schools are being held accountable today. Why should these children get teachers who aren't highly qualified," they asked. Major Owens defended the Sessions amendment, arguing that NCLB was causing problems, particularly for special education.

Senate Conferees voted in favor of the Sessions amendment, with Kennedy, Bingaman and others voting no. Most House Conferees rejected the Sessions amendment, with at least Major Owens voting in favor of the amendment. So, the Sessions amendment died.

After the debate, the Confereees voted on the Conference Report (bill). The bill approved by majority vote. Rep. Boehner recognized the 11th birthday of one of the children with a disability who was in the audience.

Changes in IDEA

Pete spent 15+ hours going through the new statute, comparing it to IDEA-97. Go to
IDEA 2004: Changes in Key Statutes to learn about changes to the key statutes.

Bottom Line: There is some good news in this new law.

IDEA News

For news, progress reports, and other important information about the reauthorization, please go to the IDEA Reauthorization News Page.

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