IT IS A RARE PIECE of legislation nowadays that makes it through the House and the Senate, let alone a House-Senate conference, without ill will, partisan shouting and layers of added pork. For that reason alone, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act, now heading toward the House and Senate floors, deserves a moment's attention. From the beginning, Republicans, Democrats and advocates were all part of the debate about this law, which reauthorizes the federal rules and funding for special education. Staffers for Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate education committee, as well as those working for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the ranking Democratic member, also solicited the opinions of outsiders who were not part of organized groups, to better understand the real problems faced by students, parents and teachers. Congressional offices on the House side, notably those of Reps. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and George Miller (D-Calif.), did the same.
The result is a law that doesn't address every problem with special education but that does grapple with some of the tougher ones. Unlike most education bills, this one involves civil rights issues, namely the right of disabled students to receive appropriate, free education, just like other children. While reinforcing this principle, the law also addresses, for example, the contentious question of whether schools can discipline or expel unruly students with disabilities: they can, but only after an appropriate process and only if they ensure that the special services the child was receiving are not discontinued.
While attitudes cannot be legislated, the law also tries to reduce some of the adversarial tension that has built up between schools and parents in recent years by reducing paperwork, by providing alternatives to litigation and by eliminating some of the more trivial bureaucratic requirements. The law also brings special education in line with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, establishing the qualifications required for special education teachers, providing funding for teachers to get those qualifications if they don't have them already and taking some steps toward establishing alternatives to assess the progress of disabled children.
Ultimately, the test for Congress is not whether this bill finally becomes law, which seems likely, but whether the goodwill surrounding it continues. The special education debate is not over, nor should it be. It is legitimate to ask about the costs of this law, both in terms of time and money; equally, it is legitimate to ask whether schools comply with it because they genuinely believe that special education is worthwhile or because they have to. The answers to both questions will affect the quality of the education all children receive. As different lessons are learned about what works best, for disabled children and for schools, legislators will need to keep the law flexible, and their naturally partisan tempers under control.