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Require Immediate Parent Action

By Matthew Cohen
January 31, 2003

Sweeping positive changes in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 are now under attack as the law comes before Congress for Reauthorization this year. As a result of a strong backlash in the educational community against many of the requirements of the IDEA, key protections for children with disabilities are at risk of being diluted or repealed. Formal proposals from the House and Senate have not yet been released (as of the date of this article, but are expected in early February), but discussions leading up to these proposals indicate that major changes which would undermine the law are being considered and some key improvements, such as increased funding, are being deferred. Anyone concerned with protecting the integrity of services and safeguards for children with disabilities should closely monitor the various internet reports of the legislative process in relation to IDEA and communicate your concerns to your Congressmen and Senators, both now and as formal legislative proposals develop. The following represent some of the major changes being considered for introduction to Congress at this time:

  1. Efforts to weaken the IEP process: Under the guise of paperwork reduction, proposals were introduced in the last Congress and will be reintroduced in this Congress which will dramatically weaken the IEP process as a means of insuring quality planning, evaluation, and parent participation. Among the proposals being contemplated include:
    1. reducing the requirement for IEP meetings from at least annually to at least every three years. This would have the effect of substantially reducing the timeliness and thoroughness of review and reduce the opportunities for automatic joint review and discussion between parents and school staff;
    2. eliminating the requirement for short term objectives or benchmarks. This would make the criteria for measuring a child’s progress far more general and less sensitive to the changes that occur during the year. It would also make it harder for parents and teachers to pinpoint the specific skills that are to be addressed as building blocks in accomplishing long term goals and would make it harder for parents to obtain ongoing and accurate feedback about how a child was progressing in accomplishing the desired outcomes;
    3. providing for IEP meetings only in response to key transitions, such as change from elementary or middle school or on request. Again, this would put the burden on the parent to initiate the process if the parent felt that more frequent meetings were necessary and could lead to considerable delays in scheduling meetings when they are needed;
    4. potentially eliminating the need for all IEP members to be physically present at the IEP meeting, allowing those with relevant information to have their information shared by others. This would drastically inhibit the ability of parents to gain information directly from those who have the most immediate knowledge. It would also shift some of the discussion to preliminary meetings of the staff that do not include the parents, thereby weakening the ability of parents to participate fully and equally in the discussions.

  2. Discipline: IDEA currently provides that all children in special education are entitled to a free appropriate public education, even if they are subject to short or long term suspension or expulsion. This is called the “no cessation of services” rule. Several proposals will be introduced that either repeal the no cessation of services rule altogether, or leave the rule intact, but leave it up to the schools to decide what, if any, services a child subject to exclusion should be provided (including no services at all). Both of these proposals have the potential to deprive appropriate education to some of the children who need it the most and will shift many of these children into situations where they receive no help or are incarcerated. Best practices indicate that disciplinary exclusion is not effective in changing problem behavior. These proposals threaten to aggravate the problems of children with behavioral challenges, rather than to help reduce them.

  3. Possible Changes in Evaluation and Eligibility: Several proposals have been made to dramatically reduce the number of special education eligibility categories from the current thirteen to as few as three categories. No clear criteria have been offered, using scientifically based evaluation procedures, to replace the criteria or evaluation procedures for the existing categories. While these proposals have drawn limited support, if they were adopted, they could substantially change the evaluation process and pool of those eligible for services in a manner likely to reduce the availability of services to children with disabilities.

  4. School wide testing and linkage to the new federal No Child Left Behind legislation. Several proposals, put forth in the interests of promoting school wide accountability for educational outcomes, would also have the effect of potentially excluding some children with disabilities from being promoted from grade to grade with their peers or receiving regular education or even modified diplomas, because of the inability of some children with disabilities to pass the state tests. Further, these tests are being suggested as a substitute means of accountability to justify reducing the specific provisions of the IEP, making It harder for parents to address in a timely way whether their child is making adequate progress or is receiving an appropriate education.

  5. Full 40% Funding: Since 1975, the Congress intended that the federal government would provide 40% of the cost of special education services. Even recent increases have only brought the federal funding level up to approximately 17%. While several proposals in Congress call for increased federal funding in the coming years, none of them come close to the 40% funding level originally promised. In order for special education to be affordable for school districts, it is critical that the federal government provide the funding that was promised. Further, any additional funding for special education must be accompanied by the requirement that the funding actually be used to supplement existing special education funding, rather than replacing funds schools are already spending. If schools can use the new special ed funds for general revenue purposes, it will not have the needed effect in improving special education services.

  6. Improve teacher training: The U.S. Department of Education acknowledges that the current teacher force, including both special and regular educators, is not adequately trained to deal with the needs of children with disabilities. It is critical that we provide support for existing teachers and that new teachers be more intensely prepared to address the diverse needs of all children, including children with disabilities.

  7. Notice of parental rights: Currently, schools must provide parents with an explanation of their rights at every key decision point. It has been proposed that the frequency of notice of rights be substantially reduced, perhaps to occur only at the entry into or exit from special education. Precisely because the procedural safeguards of IDEA are complex and have many important timelines and required steps in them, it is critical that parents receive clear notice of their rights frequently and at all decision-making meetings. Efforts should be made to improve training of parents on the special education system, not to reduce the flow of information to them.

  8. Attorneys’ Fees: A proposal has been put forth to cap the amount the District of Columbia would have to pay if they lose a special education case. This proposal may be extended to the rest of the country. Caps on attorneys fees have the effect of making it harder for parents to obtain representation, which is often critical to the ability of parents to effectively advocate for the interests of their child.

    Based on these pending proposals for radical change of the IDEA, it is vital that families communicate to their Congressional representatives, including their own experiences and stories, the following messages:
    1. Maintain the IEP process, including mandatory annual review with full participation by all team members including parents, and including continuing use of short term objectives or benchmarks;
    2. Maintain the “No Cessation of Services” rule for children with disabilities subject to disciplinary exclusion and insure that services provided allow the child to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education;
    3. Maintain existing evaluation requirements and eligibility categories in the IDEA;
    4. Insure that school wide testing does not exclude access by children with disabilities to promotion and diplomas - don’t use school wide accountability measures to replace the accountability of the IEP;
    5. Provide full federal funding of IDEA at the 40% level, while preserving the non-supplanting requirement in current law;
    6. Improve teacher training, both for current teachers and future teachers;
    7. Protect procedural safeguards and insure that parents are regularly and fully informed of their IDEA rights, in a manner that they can understand;
    8. Preserve the ability of parents to recover attorneys fees if they are the prevailing party in a due process hearing.

The future of special education in the US will be determined by the action of Congress this year. Whether you agree or disagree with the concerns expressed here, if you are concerned about special education, it is critical that you express your views to your Congressman and Senators.

To monitor the pending legislation, information can be obtained through the LD Online website,, by getting on the IDEA Rapid Response network list serve (send an email to preserve, the CHADD website,, and others. Names and addresses for your federal legislators can be obtained at or It is most important to communicate with those members who are on the House and Senate Health/Human Services and Education committees. As a general matter, phone calls or faxes are the most effective means of communicating your concern, followed by letters (if not time sensitive) or email (if the response is time sensitive).

Judith Lavin, M.S.W., author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them. Lavin speaks to numerous organizations and parent groups around the nation, giving them inspiration and hope.

Lavin’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, Washington Parent and Chicago Parent. In addition, she has appeared  on radio and TV news and talk shows around the U.S., including NBC-TV's Today show, PBS-TV's Small Talk for Parents and the CBS Radio Networks. You can visit Judy at