Federal Dateline

A Touted Law’s Bad Influence on IDEA

by Bruce Hunter

You probably know the story of the boiled frog, who did not recognize the slowly rising temperature of the water he was in. By failing to jump out, he eventually boiled to death.

The moral of the story for me is that we seem to get easily accustomed to nearly anything, no matter how foul, if it comes on gradually.

Over the past two decades, educators have become used to federal education mandates that defy both common sense and the state of the art educationally. We have tolerated congressional and executive branch actions on education that would have been unthinkable.

The details of the No Child Left Behind Act are profoundly flawed because the legislation was created in complete secrecy after the Bush administration consulted only ideologues on the left and right and the New Democrats. The latter group’s mantra seems to be “If only we could sprinkle standardized tests on the kids’ Wheaties in the morning, public education would take a great leap forward.”

The spirit of focusing more resources and greater accountability to the achievement of poor and minority students is an important step forward. Yet as the old joke goes, Congress wanted to accomplish the new focus in the worst way … and they did.

Copycat Effect
AASA distinguished itself by blowing the whistle on massive federal intrusion into state and local responsibilities and the unsound methods chosen to implement NCLB, which has been touted as the greatest federal education legislation since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. Hubris led a group of 20- and 30-year-old congressional and administration staff members and their think-tank advisers, all lacking education experience, to concoct a law that has exactly the right intent but fails tests of practicality and conceptual soundness.

Unfortunately, as we face the imminent reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the congressional staff of the big four—Sens. Edward Kennedy and Judd Gregg and Reps. George Miller and John Boehner—and the administration learned some bad habits from NCLB that they are likely to repeat unless we intervene.

I had been optimistic we could fund IDEA and obtain badly needed changes to make the law more fair and less complicated. But the move to craft IDEA in a closeted bipartisan manner gives me pause.

IDEA proposals introduced in both the House and Senate contain some very harmful things and a few good things from the perspective of school leadership. With reauthorization likely moving into the next session of Congress, we have several months to chew on these proposals.

The harmful provisions are almost certain to include vouchers, an extension of NCLB’s qualification standards for teachers and paraprofessionals to IDEA and allowance for parents to sue school districts for not having “highly qualified” special education teachers and related service providers. On the positive side, we may see some relief on procedural safeguards and a first step toward focusing on results, not compliance.

Unfortunately, the Senate’s decision to develop bipartisan IDEA proposals has resulted in consideration of only a few items on AASA’s wish list. Political opposites Kennedy, D-Mass., and Gregg, R-N.H., will allow the reauthorization to include only things they agree on or are willing to trade off. Gregg will veto mandatory funding for IDEA and Kennedy will veto simplifying discipline.

Both Republicans and Democrats seem to have agreed on new provisions that will add new responsibilities, paperwork, testing provisions and teacher standards following the recipe that produced No Child Left Behind.

On the House side, you can be certain that no GOP bill will contain mandatory funding and there will be no simplification of discipline language in the Democratic bill.

A Powerful Case
We can shift the emphasis back to serving boys and girls through schools by applying the same principles we use to make schools work—clear recommendations, lots of followup and explanations, and holding people accountable for their actions.

This is an election year, and all politicians listen more acutely in election years. The lobbying from administrators and school board members this year has been the best I have ever seen in terms of quality of information and persistence.

The administration is really twisting arms not to go along with funding IDEA, particularly in the House where Boehner, R-Ohio, chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, has thrown his entire weight against assured funding. He favors increased funding but no guarantee that funding will ever reach the original federal promise of 40 percent of average per-pupil expenditures nationally. In order to get a bipartisan bill introduced, he also will agree to new service entitlements that will make special education even more paperbound and expensive. Only the same quality of lobbying will prevent IDEA from going the way of NCLB and becoming a larger underfunded mandate.

We have made such a powerful case to this point. Our champion for IDEA’s full funding, Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., told us directly he has enough Republican votes to make IDEA funding mandatory if the same number of Democrats vote for it this time. A combination of liberal and conservative members beat us the last time, but Bass has counted votes and they won’t win again if we hold up our end and keep the pressure on.

That is a fairly simple thing for administrators and their boards to be passionate about because schools everywhere are being squeezed by state funding cuts. Yet continually sounding the charge on IDEA funding makes me feel a little like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football again, but either this year or next Lucy isn’t going to jerk the ball away at the last moment.

Bruce Hunter is director of public policy for AASA.