Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, is pleased with the passage of legislation that would help ensure a better education for Wyoming students with disabilities.
The Senate passed by a vote of 95-3 the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Improvement Act of 2003, S. 1248, which would reauthorize federal funding for special education programs and improve the previous IDEA legislation.
Enzi, who is an original cosponsor of the legislation and worked on the bill in its early stages in the committee, said the legislation makes four improvements that are particularly important to Wyoming students.
The bill would provide early access to services and support, allow states to determine their own definition of a highly qualified teacher, give more flexibility to states to fund special education programs, and allow schools greater flexibility in disciplining students with disabilities.
"Right now families of students with disabilities are moving from other states to enroll their children in Wyoming schools because we've done so well at meeting their needs," said Enzi. "Our programs are among the best in the region, and I would argue among the best in the country. This legislation will make improvements that will help benefit our programs even more."
The bill would increase the emphasis on early identification and intervention by allowing states to set aside funds that can be used for tutoring or other special assistance for students who are at risk of being identified as needing special education.
"Using funds for early intervention services is an important step toward ensuring that each disabled student receives the services he or she needs without placing children into special education programs unnecessarily," said Enzi.
The IDEA reauthorization would require every disabled student to be taught by a highly qualified teacher, while maintaining state flexibility in determining what constitutes highly qualified. Enzi said in rural states like Wyoming this is particularly important since many teachers, including special education teachers, are responsible for teaching multiple subjects.
"I am continually impressed that more than ninety-five percent of Wyoming's teachers meet the highly qualified teacher standard, including our special educators. This legislation will support the commitment of states like Wyoming to place a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, whether it is a special education classroom or not," said Enzi.
The bill would also allow states that provide a large share of non-federal special education funding to enjoy more flexibility at the state level.
Enzi said even though Wyoming's approach to funding its special education programs may be highly effective, the system in place now prevents the state from qualifying for the same flexibility that is given to other states that fund their programs from grants provided to local educational agencies, or school districts. Wyoming uses an alternative financing method in which the bulk of federal funding is retained at the state level and is used to reimburse districts for their special education expenses.
"Wyoming's system is much more effective at providing services to students with disabilities, but the lack of flexibility in the use of federal funding has tied the hands of state administrators who would like to use the funding for early identification and other education programs," said Enzi. "If Wyoming were to operate its special education programs differently, meaning less effectively, it would enjoy more flexibility with its funding. Instead, the state has decided to use a system that places the needs of students first, and that is denying us the same flexibility provided to every other state."
The legislation would also simplify the disciplinary framework for schools to administer the law and maintain the requirement that schools look at whether a child's behavior was the result of their disability when considering disciplinary action.
The House approved similar legislation last year, H.R. 1350. The next step for the bills would be a joint Senate-House conference committee that would work out the differences between each chamber's version of the bill.