|June 4, 1997 was an exciting and memorable day. Crowded together on the South Lawn of the White House, children with disabilities, parents, teachers, administrators, members of Congress, federal-agency officials and advocates gathered to witness President William J. Clinton signing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
In his remarks, President Clinton spoke movingly about IDEA's significance to the 5.8 million children with disabilities across the country. He spoke of how it reaffirms and strengthens our national commitment to provide "a world-class education for all our children." It makes it clear, he said, that "once and for all that children with disabilities have a right to be in the classroom.
What does it mean?
How is a reauthorized IDEA different from the previous law? And, as a child's first and foremost advocate, what does a parent need to know and understand about IDEA '97?
Fundamentally, the new law protects and enhances the fundamental rights of students and of parents. Students will be more involved in the general curriculum; parents will be more involved in eligibility and placement decisions; and all of us can expect more emphasis on results and on accountability.
Overall, IDEA has been carefully crafted to improve education opportunities for students with disabilities by:
- Protecting their fundamental rights to a free appropriated public education;
- Emphasizing the responsibility of schools, state and federal governments and agencies, institution of higher education, parents and students to improve education opportunities for all students;
- Requiring greater accountability for results.
IDEA '97 continues, and even strengthens, the fundamental civil-rights protections that have historically been the laws' foundation.
It preserves due process protections. Parental consent is required when a school system evaluates a child and when it places a child for the first time. Parents continue to have the right to an impartial hearing to challenge school districts' decisions concerning the provision of special education services to their child.
In the new IDEA, if a child's disability has not changed over a three-year period, he or she should not be subjected to unnecessary reassessment to determine continued eligibility for special education.
Re-evaluation will focus instead on how to teach the child in a way most suited to his or her style of learning. The new law also preserves the right of children with disabilities to receive their education in the least restrictive environment, participating in the general education curriculum to varying degrees with some adaptations and modification.
The new law recognizes that all children, including those with disabilities, deserve safe and orderly schools. For the first time, the new law outlines how school disciplinary rules and the obligation to provide a free appropriate public education to disabled children fit together. It explicitly requires appropriate help for children who need instruction in and services for following rules and getting along in school. If a child's behavior impedes his learning or the learning of others, strategies-including positive behavioral supports-are to be considered to address that behavior.
The law also recognizes that if any student with disabilities brings a weapon or illegal drugs to school, the school has the right to remove him or her to an alternate educational setting for up to 45 days. During that time, however, necessary services for a child with disabilities may not be stopped. In the alternative setting, the child must be allowed to participate in the general curriculum, to receive services and appropriate modifications-including those in his or her individualized education program (IEP)-and to receive help for addressing behavior with an eye toward preventing further problems.
The new law also permits schools to ask a hearing officer to remove a child for up to 45 days if the child is considered substantially likely to injure himself or others. Previously, only a court had that authority. In addition, schools have the right to report crimes to law enforcement or judicial authorities.
But, whatever action is taken, the law makes clear that, "all means all." All students with disabilities must continue to be served, even if they have been expelled from school.
The new law emphasizes the need for all involved in the lives of children with disabilities-parents, administrators, teachers, each level of government offices and officials-to assume greater responsibility for improving educational opportunities for those children.
IDEA '97 emphasizes the responsibility of parents and school personnel to work together to enhance the effectiveness of the IEP. It also stresses the importance of linking a child's IEP to all parts of his or her school day. In all states, parents must now be included in groups making eligibility and placement decisions about their children with disabilities. Previously, in some states, parents only had a right to be included in IEP meetings.
Research tells us that IEP meetings have tended to focus on access to special education rather than on access to overall high-quality education. Indeed, they have rarely included the general education teacher. IDEA strengthens the IEP by requiring it to address critical areas of education planning associated with improved results as well as requiring a general education teacher to be part of the IEP team.
Research also shows that through the integration of students with disabilities into general education classrooms is associated with improved results-including educational accomplishments, ultimately higher levels of employment and independent living-students simply integrated without support and modifications have higher drop-out rates. IDEA '97 explicitly requires that the IEP not only describe the extent to which a child will be integrated, but detail the aids, supports, and accommodations he or she will receive within the mainstream.
Recognizing the diversity of children with disabilities, the law also requires that specific considerations be made for certain groups of disabled children. IEP teams must consider, for example, communications needs of children and the use of assistive technology for those who require it. In addition, the IEP team must also consider the use of behavior interventions, strategies and supports in the case of a child whose behavior impedes his or her learning or that of others.
On the local-government level, IDEA '97 underscores the fundamental idea that students with disabilities should be learning what other children are learning in school. Schools will be required to assume greater responsibility for assuring that students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum. School officials and parents now must jointly be involved in placement decisions. Teachers and related services personnel will be required to keep parents regularly informed on their child's progress.
Under IDEA '97, states must identify promising practices and assist local education agencies (LEAs) in adopting them. Each state will work together with institutions of higher education and LEAs to develop a comprehensive plan for ensuring that qualified teachers are prepared and available to teach children with disabilities. States must ensure that services to infants and toddlers are provided in "natural environments" as much as possible, and must improve transitions between preschool services and elementary schools. In addition, IDEA state advisory panels must include a majority of either individuals with disabilities and/or parents of students served by IDEA.
IDEA '97 requires the federal government to do a better job implementing and enforcing the law. The law gives the Department of Education greater enforcement authority by allowing the Secretary to withhold all or part of IDEA funds from a state. When the Department determines that a state does not comply with the act in some way, it can refer these issues to the Justice Department.
The new law also requires the Department to use what it has learned from past and present investments and to target future funding to enhance the capacity of schools and communities to work effectively with disabled children. Under the new law, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) of the Department of Education will continue to support research to disseminate research-validated best practice information to support the teacher in the classroom, to improve personnel training, to use media and technology to enhance learning, and to provide technical assistance at local, state and national levels.
IDEA '97 builds on educational research of more than 22 years and contains provisions designed to improved educational results for students with disabilities, making certain assumptions.
Early intervention is important. Results with infants and toddlers in preschool programs have demonstrated the importance of reaching a child with a disability early. Children who receive early intervention services are less likely to be placed outside the home and are better able to learn once they reach school age.
Research has shown that waiting until third or fourth grade to refer children to special education can be too late. Appropriate interventions need to happen early, when it is clear that a child needs help and at a time, developmentally, when the child can profit most from it.
However, this raises concerns about classifying children too early. With that in mind IDEA '97 allows states and local districts to use "developmental delay" eligibility criteria through age nine, instead of one of the specific disability categories. The new law provides further flexibility by allowing IDEA-funded staff, who work in general education classrooms with children with disabilities, to work with others who may need their help as well.
All students benefit when high expectations for achievements are coupled with an opportunity to learn. Research tells us that children with disabilities can and do learn well. IDEA '97 includes provisions that schools must include students with disabilities in assessments with appropriate modifications, and that states must develop alternate assessments for the small number of students who cannot take regular assessments. Access to vocational education and transition services produce better results. IDEA '97 requires that transition planning begin no later than age 14, and that a student's transition plan focus on the course of study the student will pursue in high school.
The road ahead
We have taken on the exciting but challenging task of implementing the new IDEA. The Office of Special Education Programs already held a series of outreach meetings with key constituencies to provide the opportunity for broad input into the IDEA implementation process. OSEP also is setting up training activities at the local, state and national levels, and will be conducting public meetings as it develops final regulations designed to implement the intent of the law.
The keys to IDEA's passage were Congress' spirit of bipartisanship and the collaboration and cooperation of the education community and the disability community and its advocates. As Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and Director of the Office of Special Education Programs, we urge parents to continue work at our side as we move down a path that ensures our actions will echo President Clinton's words to our children with disabilities. "We believe in you, we believe in your potential and we are going to do everything we can to help you develop it."