Congress approved and sent to the White House yesterday an update of special-education requirements that eases pressure on teachers while increasing enforcement of high standards for the disabled.
The bill would be the first major revision to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act in seven years. The law promises a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to more than 6.7 million children with special needs.
The House passed it 397 to 3, and the Senate approved it by voice vote. President Bush was expected to sign it. That would allow Congress to take credit for a significant, bipartisan schools bill before the new year, when its membership will change and a heavy agenda of education issues awaits.
"We set out with one fundamental goal in mind," said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. "That was to improve the educational results for students with disabilities, and I believe we have accomplished that goal with the bill that we have before us today."
Yesterday's action became a formality after congressional negotiators reached terms earlier in the week, capping weeks of private talks and nearly two years of debate in Congress.
In a key provision, the bill aims to boost discipline, giving schools more freedom to remove disruptive children if their behavior is not a result of their disability.
It also targets more accurate identification of which children have disabilities, earlier intervention for struggling students and stronger enforcement of how states comply.
For teachers, there is the promise of less paperwork. New educators will also get more flexibility in proving they are "highly qualified" to stay in the classroom under new federal standards -- but not as much flexibility as several education groups say is needed.
The bill encourages mediation in disputes between parents and schools, and it allows states and districts to recover attorneys' fees if a parent's complaint is deemed frivolous.
On the money front, Congress will recommit to the promise it made long ago: covering as much as 40 percent of the additional cost of educating children with special needs. It now pays less than 19 percent, and states and schools must make up a difference of billions of dollars.
"For $10 billion we could fully fund IDEA and get up to that 40 percent cost share," said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.). "It's just a question of priorities." Kind said the administration may ask for an additional $75 billion for Iraq next year and "with just a fraction of that amount we could fully fund IDEA."
Under the new deal, Congress would reach its spending share by 2011, but that is based on yearly increases that are not guaranteed.
Getting the bill to the floor has been a labor. The House passed its version 19 months ago; the Senate approved its bill in May.
The move to reconcile the differences stalled for months. Democrats sought assurances their concerns would be heard. Republicans said the minority party held up the bill so Bush would not be given a pre-election victory.
In recent days, however, House and Senate education leaders have praised one another for their commitment. After negotiators reached terms Wednesday, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "In many respects, this is one of the most important undertakings and success stories of this Congress."