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Back To School, Backs To The Wall:
IDEA Reauthorization

Summer went fast, didn't it? But we're all going back at it. The kids go back to school this week. Families get back to the regular work schedule after a summer of activities. Next week Congress comes back. Before you know it, we're all fitting back into old routines or creating new ones. Some things have changed. Others have stayed the same. How quick we forget, and how quick we get back on track.

One thing hasn't changed from June. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA 97] remains under attack, and 6.5 million students and their families remain with their backs against the wall. September, always a busy month, will be pivotal in the battle to save IDEA 97. Today we review previous battle activity and try to get set for the next month, when the war might be decided.

We've drawn most of the material for today's homepage from the Our Children Left Behind website and its various links. Throughout the summer OCLB has tried to post something new and fresh every day, so that we all remember the struggle we are in.

We've tried to keep momentum stable, and have urged parents, students and families to keep contacting those Congress members and US Senators who hold our children's fate in their hands. We cannot stop that strategy now, even though life around and within our families is revving up. We all must keep the pressure on, and we all must make extra effort to be sure our voices are heard in the critical days ahead.

Things To Remember

The summary below briefly details what has happened so far in the IDEA reauthorization process, and what is procedurally scheduled to happen in the days ahead. We begin by stating the main themes of the IDEA reauthorization process, and highlighting the major objections to the bills as proposed in the House of Representatives and Senate.

Main Themes - Why IDEA Authorization?

What have we learned about the political process and the practical realities that have brought IDEA and 6.5 million children and their families to this crisis point? We know that:

  • IDEA 97 was signed into law in 1997. The federal rules implementing IDEA 97 [nuts and bolts rules that tell administrators and families how to use IDEA at the federal, state and local level] took effect in 1999.
  • Most states needed two years [1999 to 2001] to write and revise their state rules to conform to IDEA 97 requirements. Some states needed even more time [Michigan's rules implementing IDEA 97 did not take effect until June, 2002].
  • IDEA has been fully implemented throughout the United States for at most two years. To all intents and purposes it is a new law that has not had a reasonable chance to work.
  • Part B of IDEA 97, the section governing parent/student rights and student eligibility; Individual Education Plan [IEP] development; IEP Team activities and requirements; discipline provisions; and appeal mechanisms was permanently authorized by Congress in IDEA 97.
IDEA 97 does not have to go through Congress again now or at any time in the future in order to remain the law of the land. There is no legal need or reason to review or revise Part B in order for it to remain in effect.
  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which became law in 2001, does work toward measurements that gage student academic progress.
NCLB provisions do not embrace an understanding of or regulate the measurement of the skill building components that often are at the core of IEPs for students receiving services under IDEA, particularly those students who have cognitive or physical disabilities or emotional impairments.
  • IDEA 97 and NCLB can co-exist.

Nothing in NCLB, either in its language or operation, requires that IDEA 97 be revised to conform to NCLB. IDEA 97 is in conformity with NCLB now.

  • The current Congressional push to change Part B of IDEA 97 has been fueled relentlessly by school administrators and their lobbyists over the last two plus years, virtually since the day IDEA 97 finally was implemented across the United States.
  • There is only little current, reliable research data that fairly or accurately assesses IDEA 97's effectiveness across the country at this early point in its existence. It is too early to declare with certainty that any provisions put into place by IDEA 97 are not working. The jury is still out.

What Is Right About IDEA 97

OCLB, like many parents, families and advocacy organizations, has fewer objections to S 1248 than we do to HR 1350.

We think it is important, however, that parents and advocates not get caught in the "lesser of two evils" trap. We should not be forced to choose whether we want the knife stuck six inches into our back or four inches into our back. It is our Congress, and we should hold them accountable to our will and our children's needs.

In that vein:

Educational planning

  • One year educational plans, required by IDEA 97, model the public accountability expectations and common practices guiding our nation's operation.

Governmental, business and personal budgets operate and are measured on a one year basis; virtually all employees (public and private) receive annual job evaluations and salary adjustments; we measure our progress toward long term business or personal goals in one year increments; we evaluate educational progress and programming for elementary and secondary students in general education annually; and we measure our economic gains and losses and pay taxes on an annual basis. America measures its progress and imposes its accountability standards using one year as the time span.

  • Short-term goals and benchmarks also is common practice in the real world.

In the real world, long term goals and objectives are achieved by breaking them into smaller pieces. We organize our workday and work habits around what we hope or need to accomplish in the short term to meet the long-term goal. Teachers and educational professionals assure that students in general education achieve annual academic milestones or goals by breaking the year's academic cycle into semesters and the work into chapters or units, moving methodically and deliberately, and measuring progress incrementally by daily work, quiz, test and marking period grades. By these methods both the students and the teachers are held accountable for their work.

  • Annual IEP plans and short-term objectives under IDEA 97 make sense for students with disabilities because their educational development coexists with and is dependent on factors related to their disabilities.

The focus frequently is on the development of specific language, social, physical and related skills rather than on the acquisition of specific academic language. Variables in the course of the student's development including the medical or therapeutic course of the student's disability or disorder; the quality or quantity of educational and related support; and the child's needs at home all directly impact the student's ability acquire these essential skills.

  • Short-term goals also provide accountability measures for those who are providing the services.

If a short term goal remains unmet and the teachers and professionals have provided the educational and related services required by the IEP, then the problem is not one of delivery, but of planning, and all are better served -- student, teacher and therapist – if the student's plan is adjusted after reviewing why the short term objective was not met. The core issue is whether it is fair to the student and his educator to eliminate one year IEPs and short-term objectives. We believe the answer clearly is no.

Procedural Protection

  • Until 1975 students with disabilities were not assured the same right to a free, appropriate public education promised to children who did not have disabilities.

The practice throughout the country was to depreciate the value of people with disabilities, and to segregate them from the general community. They were denied the very educational, housing, employment and community opportunities Americans in the general population took for granted for themselves.

  • Even today parents and their children with disabilities are at a distinct disadvantage when engaging in their children's educational planning.

Virtually all schools and special education administrators have ready access to and regularly rely upon professionals and attorneys who know special education law and practice it every day, paid for by taxpayers including the parents.

  • Parents frequently lack the economic resources to hire lawyers to advise them on their children's educational rights.

There generally are only a handful of lawyers in each state who regularly practice special education law on a par with the lawyers retained by the schools. Even trained professional advocates who do not practice law are relatively scarce.
The quality of advocacy services and information varies greatly from state to state, and sometimes from county to county.

  • Virtually all schools and special education administrators have regular contact with the school therapists and other specialists who are involved in programming activities and generally know what types of educational and related services are available to students with disabilities.
  • Parents lack the depth of resource and program knowledge possessed by school personnel and are at a distinct disadvantage in the IEP Team planning room.

If the availability of services or independent evaluations is not thoroughly explained to the parents by the professionals, the parents frequently feel they have no choice but to accept the services or setting offered by the school.

  • Parents, who lack the economic and educational resources available to schools and educators, often are easily intimidated by school personnel and the planning process, and accept school programming suggestions even with reservations because they fear that if they put up a fight, the school will take it out on their children.
  • The procedural protections contained in IDEA 97 assure that the balance of power is more equally weighted. The steps involved in resolving a dispute frequently lead to an early and effective resolution. Very few cases go all the way to a due process hearing.
  • IDEA 97 ensures that parents are informed of their rights and give them reasonable opportunities to exercise them.

Discipline

  • Students who have disabilities should not be punished for acting disabled.
  • Students who have disabilities often have behavior challenges that are directly related to their disability. The challenges might arise from causes directly related to the physical or neurological features of their disability, or might arise from social skills deficits, emotional impairments or environmental factors related to their disability.
  • It makes sense to be sure that behavior challenges are considered during the development of any IEP, and to put positive behavior support plans in place that emphasize skill development and model expected behavior back to the student.
  • It makes sense to review behavior plans and IEPs when a student who has a disability engages in behavior that might result in school discipline to be sure that the plan is being followed and that the plan is effective.
  • It makes sense to use behavior tools and resources to understand and eliminate challenging behavior before it happens, rather than to wait until the behavior occurs and then to punish it. This is especially true when the behavior is related to a student's disability and can be anticipated and planned for in advance.
  • Zero tolerance – rigid reliance on school code's of conduct – does not make sense for a student with a disability if the school has the capacity to prepare and implement positive behavior support plans in advance and either fails or refuses to do so.

These points summarize the key themes in the current reauthorization battle. They are not exhaustive, nor does every family or student confront every problem. They are to give a common sense flavor for what is at stake in the battle to save IDEA.

Brief Recap of IDEA Reauthorization Activities

Stealth IDEA In The House Of Representatives

In March, under cover of the Iraq invasion, HR 1350 was introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill was drafted with the primary view and help of school and special education administrators and their lobbyists.

Congressmen Boehner and Castle, the key House committee chairs, announced that they would hold no public hearings. We campaigned for more time and more input. The Boehner and Castle committees ignored or rejected our pleas. Boehner and Castle blasted the bills through their committees and onto the House floor.

Parent and advocacy agencies organized a national call-in day for April 29, 2003.

Congressmen Boehner and Castle posted a notice on the official House of Representatives Committee website warning their Congressional colleagues that parents and our lobbyists were going to be calling their offices. Boehner and Castle told them to look out, because we parents and advocates all were going to try to mislead them and lie to them.

The next day, April 30th, the House of Representatives, under the Boehner/Castle leadership, passed the bill and sent it on to the Senate. Few now claim that HR 1350 was a bipartisan effort, as only 34 of the 200+ Democrats crossed over to vote for the bill. The margin of passage was slimmer than anyone had expected when the bill was introduced on March 19th.

The Senate was expected to follow the House lead, both in speed, and in shutting out parent and advocacy organization input. Early predictions were that the bill would be introduced and clear the Senate by Memorial Day.

But something happened.

Parents and advocates started making progress in telling Congress about our children, and about how HR 1350 would gut
their educational opportunity.

The Senate slowed its process down and decided to draft its own bill. On June 12th Senators Gregg and Kennedy introduced S 1248. The goal initially was to have S 1248 through the Senate by Independence Day, They opened a two week period of public comment to hear what parents and administrators thought of the bill.

Families, advocates and consumer-based organizations quickly drafted and filed their responses. Many families traveled to Washington to introduce the Senators and staff members to their children. July 4th came and went without any Senate floor debate or voting. Then came summer recess and our Congressional legislators joined us in our communities for the dog
days of August.

S 1248 probably will be introduced and debated sometime in September. OCLB will give you expected floor debate and voting dates as soon as we know them. Keep checking in, especially now.

The Next Step - Senate floor Debate

We have been told that S 1248 likely will be introduced without too much advance notice. The full Senate will debate and vote on the bill, and there may be many amendments offered during the debate. The Senate Republican Policy Committee has issued a report that appears to favor many of the House provisions over those included in S 1248. Expected amendments include one that would substitute the language of HR 1350 for S 1248. Our best information is that the leadership hopes to have the bill through the Senate by the end of September.

What Happens Next - The Conference Committee

OCLB's Homepage from August 21st laid out the bill creation policy, and we suggest you review that date for more complete information.

Conference Committee members include both Congress members and Senators who are appointed by the respective body's leadership. A majority of the members from each house will be Republicans. The Conference Committee likely will be made up of members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pension Committee. The Conference Committee will do its work outside of the public eye, and is free to keep or throw out anything included in either S 1248 or HR 1350.

In fact, it is not uncommon for conference committees to add provisions to bills that have absolutely nothing to do with the bill's primary topic or purpose. Since the work is done in private, we likely will not have much preparation time between when the bill is reported out of conference and is presented to the House and Senate for their votes. The bill must pass both houses in identical form in order to go to the President for his signature.

What Should You Do?

  • Stay on the case.
  • Keep writing.
  • Keep calling.
  • Send pictures of your child.
  • Better yet, take your child to meet her/his Congressional legislators.
  • Tell your family members and friends about the battle and what it means for your child and you.
  • Review the resources on the OCLB Resource page, and learn about the proposed changes and what they will mean for your child and family.

What Should You Say?

  • Tell your child's story.
  • Educate your legislator.
  • Describe what life is like at school and at home.
  • Identify the proposed changes that will hurt your child and family the most, and tell the legislator how and why that hurt will happen. Ask her or him to protect your child and family from the harm.
  • Be personal and use family examples.
  • Speak from your heart and tell your emotions. Express your fears and if your child can do so, let her/him express what she/he is afraid of.
  • Tell why you like IDEA 97 – how it has made a difference for your child and family.
  • Talk about your child's future, the dreams she/he has, and the obligation that you have to help prepare your child so that she/he can make the dreams come true.
  • Be honest, be open and be direct.

This gets us through August and back into action. We think it is all going to happen quickly, and OCLB is going to stay on top of it as it happens.

We suggest that you browse down the Homepage and our other pages. Refresh your memory about the specific concerns with the proposed bills.

Most of all, remember it's about the child – your child, and her/his right to achieve greatness in her/his own way, and on her/his own terms. There are 6.5 million children and their families standing beside you.

If we all do just one thing, it might be enough to turn the tide in our favor. If we do nothing, we have no one to blame but ourselves, but it is Our Children Left Behind.

Don't let Congress do it.

Tricia and Calvin Luker

http://www.ourchildrenleftbehind.com

Copyright 2003 by Tricia and Calvin Luker. Permission to forward, copy and post this article is granted so long as it is attributed to the authors and www.ourchildrenleftbehind.com.

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