Public Policy Update

Education reform has been at the forefront of President Bush's domestic policy agenda, as demonstrated by the recent passage of the "No Child Left Behind Act." Soon to follow is consideration by the Administration and Congress of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides special education and related services to approximately six million children with disabilities up to age 21.

Enacted in 1975, IDEA's predecessor, the "Education for All Handicapped Children Act," required that all children have access to a free, appropriate public education. IDEA has evolved a great deal since then. More recent features include providing services in the least restrictive environment, increasing parent involvement, establishing disciplinary procedures for children who receive services, and defining the proper identification and evaluation of children with disabilities.

During the pending reauthorization process, the Infants and Toddlers Program (for children from birth to age 3) and the IDEA provisions for technical support and training and research are the most vulnerable, since they are neither mandated nor guaranteed funding.

What is happening now?

IDEA is slated for reauthorization this year. The Presidential Commission for Excellence in Special Education was recently established to determine the status of IDEA by gathering testimony from researchers, practitioners and parents. President Bush appointed three APA members to his administration's 17-member commission: W. Alan Coulter (Louisiana State University Medical Center), Jack M. Fletcher, PhD, (University of Texas Health Science Center) and David W. Gordon, PhD, (Linkhorn Psychological Associates, Virginia Beach). A preliminary report is expected during the summer and a final report is due in early fall. The findings are likely to inform proposed changes to IDEA.

Key issues being addressed by APA in the reauthorization process include:

  • Personnel, which includes defining related services, including psychological services and eligible providers. APA's goal is to ensure that these services are preserved and that qualified psychologists are eligible to provide psychological services funded by IDEA.

  • Testing and assessment, which involves ensuring that appropriate testing and assessment procedures are used and properly administered when determining eligibility for special education, and whether to include children with disabilities in statewide testing.

  • Eligibility and over-identification. Certain populations of students, particularly low-income African Americans and those who are not proficient in English, are over-identified for special education services. In addition, some groups are interested in reducing the number of eligibility categories, which could result in disqualification for some children--like those with learning disabilities, ADHD and behavioral difficulties.

  • Discipline. Current law requires schools to continue special education services if a student is suspended for disciplinary infractions attributed to the disability. Some schools find it difficult to provide these services and would like this provision removed.

Also likely to be debated are early childhood initiatives, procedural safeguards, paperwork reduction and increasing federal funding for IDEA--which has yet to reach the 40 percent of program costs pledged.

What is APA doing?

APA's Public Policy Office and Practice Directorate are also working to inform Congress about the needs of children with disabilities to ensure that knowledge gained from psychological research and practice guides this legislation. APA also advocates on behalf of psychologists in schools and their role in special education. In this regard, the Public Policy Office has worked closely with the staff of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and other offices to develop ways to improve the existing IDEA legislation to better address children's mental health needs.

Margo Candelaria is a graduate student intern in APA's Public Policy Office.

Further Reading

To learn more and to get involved in federal advocacy concerning IDEA and other issues of importance to psychology, visit the PPO Web site at www.apa.org/ppo.