Eduwonk’s Thumbnail Guide to IDEA

Looks like the Senate will finally begin debating reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) this week. IDEA sounds obscure but actually governs most special education policy and on a day-to-day basis and is probably the most visible federal regulatory presence in elementary and secondary schools. Although the House and Senate bills have plenty to recommend them, disability advocates are strongly opposed to provisions in both — particularly those that would streamline paperwork and due process aspects of the current law.

The Senate bill will be considered under a time agreement limiting debate and allowing only six amendments. They include amendments about attorney’s fees, transient students, research into the causes of some disabilities, a 10-state pilot program for more flexibility under IDEA, as well as two funding amendments.

The major disagreement will be, not surprisingly, about funding. There is general agreement that IDEA is under-funded but no consensus about how to increase funding. Careful readers will note that the best way to increase funding is to spend more money! Yes! But the disagreement is whether additional IDEA funding should be “discretionary” or subject to the annual congressional appropriations process or “mandatory” meaning automatic. Medicare and Social Security are examples of mandatory programs while most social spending including education is discretionary. Senator Gregg (R-NH) will offer an amendment about discretionary funding and Senators Harkin (D-IA) and Hegel (R-NB) will offer one to make IDEA funding mandatory. Here is more on the politics of IDEA funding.

The Republican-controlled House is opposed to mandatory funding for IDEA along with most Senate Republicans. An amendment to make IDEA spending mandatory will likely pass the Senate with almost every Democrat supporting it and probably a handful of Republican senators in favor too (you can be sure the White House and The Wall Street Journal editorial page will be watching Specter!).

Differences between the House and Senate bills will be resolved in a conference committee. Smart money in both parties say that most likely mandatory spending will be removed in favor of a discretionary spending increase or the bill will just die in conference this year (not a lot is getting done these days anyway). That seems like a safe bet (the Senate has passed mandatory spending proposals for IDEA before and they’ve met this fate) but an unfortunate one if the good policy ideas in both the House and Senate bills get lost too.

Afterthought: The wild card to watch is the election. If it stays close then the President — who currently opposes mandatory IDEA funding — might decide that a big spending education bill would be advantageous. But he would not do a 180 and adopt the other party’s policy on the eve of an election, would he? Remember homeland security?

Or, more likely, to move the bill out of conference President Bush could also just support throwing a lot of money at IDEA during the appropriations process. After all the distinction among mandatory and discretionary is a Washington issue, it doesn’t drive voters to the polls.

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