Special-Needs Bill: Good IDEA or Not?


Jewish organizations expressed disappointment over President Bush’s recent signing of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), saying the bill does not go far enough to help Jewish children in private school who need extra educational support.

Under IDEA, students who require special services — such as speech therapy, sign language interpreters or resource teachers — must receive them by attending local public schools. Although some parents have successfully negotiated or even sued to allow their child to attend a private school and still receive financial support from their district for those services, for the most part, parents who want their child to receive a religious education must pay for additional services themselves.

Prior to the mid-1990s, IDEA made it possible for parents to send their child to a religious school and still receive services, such as speech therapy or occupational therapy, through their local school district.

However, a reauthorization of the law in 1997 changed all that. Currently, in states like California, many parents who would prefer to send all of their children to the same Jewish day school are forced to send their physically or otherwise challenged child to the local public school because the school district will not pay for support services provided off campus.

Jewish educators and advocates had hoped Bush, a proponent of school choice, would support changes to the law that included increased funding for services and making religious private schools a part of the larger picture of special education.

But while the reauthorization of the law includes some improvements, most advocates were disappointed.

“The last reauthorization in 1997 made things harder, and this did nothing to correct that,” said Michael Held, executive director of the Etta Israel Center, which provides services for children with special needs. “Unfortunately, Congress was not able to make the needed changes at this time.”

IDEA requires, for example, that the state pay for the federally mandated services only if the child is in a public school, even though funding is based on the total number of children with special needs who live in a district. Private schools do receive federal funds through IDEA, but those funds usually only cover a small percentage of the services the law itself mandates.

“We’re talking about a relatively small amount of money being made available to all private schools in the state. This has been the biggest problem for private schools, and in fact there has been a dramatic falloff [at Jewish private schools] in the number of kids receiving services and in the number of services they are getting,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Washington office director and counsel for Agudath Israel.

The latest legislation did make some improvements, fine-tuning the way private school students are counted in the overall picture for federal funding, and requiring the public school district, which distributes the federal funds, to consult with local private schools in determining how the funds are distributed among the schools.

It has been a tough road for supporters of legislation that had started out with such promise. H.R. 1350, which was passed by Congress last month and signed into law by Bush on Dec. 3, is the latest in a long line of legislation to ensure the rights of disabled people, beginning with the passage in 1975 of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990. The law is intended to make possible a free and appropriate education for any child with physical, mental and emotional challenges.

Activists for the disabled championed the initial passage of the act in 1975 as a bold civil rights initiative. In the education world, it had the same meaning for children with disabilities as Brown v. Board of Education had for African American students. However, IDEA is not a permanent part of federal law and, therefore, requires reauthorization approximately every five years.

“The irony is this particular piece of legislation was one of the most empowering to come along in terms of including children with special needs. But, over time, it has become extremely restrictive and adversarial, denying private school families the ability to get what they need,” said Held of the Etta Israel Center. The center provides inclusion support and self-contained classrooms for Jewish students with educational and developmental challenges, and also trains Jewish educators to work with such students through its Schools Attuned program.

Held said that Etta Israel is still committed to providing a full range of services — speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy — to Jewish children, despite the fact the Center is not reimbursed through the IDEA by either the state or federal government. He said, however, that his dream of full inclusion for children with learning challenges and physical disabilities within the Jewish community will not come to fruition until IDEA is changed back to its pre-1997 funding standards.

“At Etta Israel, we have really tried to create a model that does not separate [regular] education and special education. But the old model is the model IDEA supports,” Held said. “The result is that parents are locked into this scenario where they have to fight, advocate and litigate to get services. If the model were allowed to change and the education dollars flowed to helping the kids, there would be a lot more services to go around.”

David Ackerman, director of educational services for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) in Los Angeles, said problems stemming from the bill have been exacerbated by state law.

“The difficulty is not just because of federal legislation, but because of the state’s policy and its tradition of separating church and state issues,” Ackerman noted. “Other states have found ways to provide special education services [in private religious schools] in a way California never has.”

The BJE recently commissioned a task force which will, among its other duties, examine ways to obtain funding within the confines of the law, and make sure private school students identified as needing support services are accounted for in the state budget.

“We are concerned the state won’t properly identify those kids from private schools who should be receiving services and are entitled to those services,” Ackerman said.

Held acknowledged there was one helpful change in the new legislation.

“It does endorse and fund professional development,” he said. “So our Schools Attuned work will be able to access the dollars to provide high-quality professional development to private Jewish schools throughout Los Angeles.”

Overall, the complexity of the IDEA and the failure on the part of Congress to make needed changes means parents are going to have to work harder to educate themselves. At Agudath Israel, Cohen said part of the organization’s focus is to help parents to get more than “yes or no” answers from their local school districts.

“Unless they know what they are entitled to, parents are going to forgo services,” Cohen said. “A lot of strides have been made but unfortunately they are because of litigation and knocking on the doors of city hall. I suspect that will continue.”