There is little doubt that the nation's special education system is the most heavily regulated and under-funded of all federal education mandates. It is also one of the most controversial. For example, a disproportionate number of minority children are in special education programs, particularly African-American children, who make up 14.8 percent of the population, but 20.2 percent of all special education students. Also alarming: special education students' poor outcomes, particularly in terms of academic progress and graduation rates that average about 25 percent.
Meanwhile, the battle lines are being drawn in Washington over reauthorization of IDEA, passed in 1975 to ensure a "free appropriate public education" for students with disabilities. The last reauthorization was in 1997.
The two main sides in the Congressional debate:
- Those urging the federal government to provide the 40 percent funding of special education as originally promised, which according to the Council for Exceptional Children, would come to an estimated $18 billion for the 2002-03 school year. (Currently, the federal government is spending $6 billion on the program.) Those in this camp also are calling on federal officials to refrain from making substantive changes in the law, noting that school officials and classroom teachers have not yet fully implemented the changes mandated by the 1997 reauthorization. This group includes major education associations such as the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators; special education advocacy groups such as the Council for Exceptional Children; and special education teachers and academics. Congressional supporters include most Democrats and a few Republicans.
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