The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that governs special education for the nation’s 6.5 million students with disabilities was updated by Congress last year and will take effect in July.
IDEA 2004 has drawn cautious praise from both school administrators and disability advocates. "There’s things in there that we don’t like, and we’ve gone backwards in a couple of places, but there also are places that are better," said Julia Epstein, director of communications for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.
Disability advocates were relieved that the final bill represented a bipartisan compromise and didn’t strictly adhere to the bill passed by the House, which was "horrific in its attack on the rights of kids with disabilities," Epstein said.
The new law will improve monitoring and enforcement of the IDEA, including sanctions against states that violate the law. Other pluses include requirements for alternate assessments of a student’s progress when regular tests aren’t appropriate, attention to school-to-life transition programs, and access to assistive technology.
Among the changes:
IEPs: IDEA 2004 includes language that tightens up teaching standards for special education students. Special education teachers must meet "highly qualified" standards (as set out in the No Child Left Behind Act) by the end of the 2005-06 school year. In addition, IEPs must include special education and related services that are "based on peer-reviewed research."
"These new requirements… [provide] tools that parents, teachers and advocates can use to advocate for children with disabilities," says special education attorney Pete Wright, in an analysis of IDEA 2004 on his Wrightslaw Web site. Noting that the new law doesn’t go into effect until July, he advises parents who want IEPs that reflect the new standards to request an IEP meeting after that time.
In addition, 15 states (to be named later) will be allowed to experiment with the option of offering three-year IEPs to students ages 18 to 21 who are involved in transition activities.
The complaint process: IDEA 2004 gives back some power to school districts that they lost when IDEA last was overhauled in 1997. Although some advocates fear the changes will make it harder for dissatisfied parents to sue, in fact they’ve just slowed the process a little.
Complaints now must go through a mediation process before a court hearing. New issues may not be raised at a due process hearing if they weren’t included in the original complaint (unless both parties agree).
If the court finds a family’s lawsuit "frivolous," parents may be ordered to pay the school district’s legal costs – a provision that has always applied but that’s now explicitly spelled out (as an intimidation technique, claim advocates) in the new law. A two-year statute of limitations is imposed on requesting a hearing, and a 90-day limit for filing court appeals.
Student discipline: When a student with a disability is disruptive, is it his/her fault or the "fault" of the disability? The burden of proof in answering that question has shifted from the schools, which used to have to prove the behavior wasn’t related to the disability before a student could be removed from class, to the parents, who now must prove that it is disability-related. Students may be moved to another educational setting while parents appeal.
Paperwork reduction: Minor IEP changes can be made via conference call or letter, rather than requiring a formal meeting. In addition, 15 states (to be named later) will be allowed to implement paperwork-reduction plans that free up more teacher time.
The new law goes to the U.S. Department of Education, which will write regulations incorporating the changes and name the states that will try out paperwork-reduction strategies and three-year IEPs.