National Alliance on Mental Illness
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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Our nation’s special education law - the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) - is among the most important pieces of civil rights legislation for children with disabilities ever passed in this country. IDEA guarantees a free, appropriate, public education to children with disabilities – including children and adolescents with mental illnesses.

Before passage of IDEA in 1975, at least 1,000,000 children with disabilities in the United States were excluded entirely from the education system; many other children with disabilities were in segregated settings, had only limited access to the educational system and were therefore denied an appropriate education. Today, about 6.5 million children with disabilities receive special education and related services thanks to IDEA.

Well-documented studies and reports show that students in the emotional disturbance category of IDEA (which includes those with mental illnesses) achieve unacceptably poor academic results. These students fail more courses, earn lower grade point averages, miss more days of school and are retained at grade more than students in any other disability category. (U.S. Department of Education’s Twentieth Annual Report to Congress.)

NAMI supports the Senate Bill (S 1248) to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and strongly opposes the House Bill (HR 1350). The Senate bill addresses the educational needs of students with mental illnesses that are essential to ensure their fundamental right to receive a free and appropriate public education. Conversely, the House bill threatens the fundamental right of students with mental illnesses to receive an appropriate education.

On June 25th 2003, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted unanimously to approve the Senate IDEA reauthorization bill - S 1248, a bill with strong bipartisan support. The bill now must go to the full Senate floor for a vote. NAMI applauds the hard work of the Senate HELP committee and its leaders to develop a strong bipartisan bill. The House passed its version of the IDEA reauthorization bill HR 1350 last year.

NAMI Supports the Senate IDEA Reauthorization Bill (S 1248) and Opposes the House Bill (HR 1350)

IDEA Discipline Provisions

NAMI supports the discipline provisions included in S 1248, however NAMI strongly opposes those included in HR 1350. The House bill allows a school to unilaterally exclude a student from school for violating the school’s code of conduct – regardless of the seriousness of the action and without requiring a determination regarding whether the behavior was a manifestation of the student’s disability. The House discipline provisions threatens a return to the days when schools excluded students with disabilities without adequate justification. The Senate bill includes a much more balanced approach.

Due Process Provisions

HR 1350 creates a new maze of options and new burdens for parents that, singly or in combination, will severely limit the prospect of many families moving forward with due process. For example, the bill mandates a one-month waiting period before any parent complaint can go to due process regardless of the problem or issue. This provision causes unnecessary delays in students with mental illnesses receiving appropriate educational services. The Senate bill provisions are far more appropriate.

Positive Behavioral Supports

NAMI strongly supports the provisions in S 1248 that emphasize the importance of positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS) as an effective approach to addressing challenging behaviors in students. PBIS is an effective and proven method of addressing student behavior, with data to show positive academic outcomes for all students.

Changes in the IEP Reduce Accountability

HR 1350 threatens annual Individualized Education Plan (IEP) reviews and includes a new three-year IEP option. The bill eliminates the short-term objectives and benchmarks currently required under the law by 2005-2006 (except for those students taking alternative assessments).

Transition Planning and Services

The Senate bill includes several critically important provisions that are designed to increase the success of special education students – including those with mental illnesses - who transition from school to employment, post-secondary school and the adult system. The Senate added a new section to IDEA that provides funding to vocational rehabilitation agencies to provide vocational guidance to students with disabilities, to attend transition IEP meetings, to support outreach to students with disabilities and to facilitate transition to vocational rehabilitative services.

Qualified Special Education Personnel

As many NAMI families know, the shortage of qualified school personnel has hampered the full implementation of IDEA for 25 years. Without properly trained school personnel – who understand early onset mental illnesses and other disabilities - we cannot expect to increase the achievement levels or outcomes for students with mental illnesses served by IDEA. The Senate bill emphasizes the need for schools to employ highly qualified special education personnel to work with students with disabilities. The Senate bill applies the "highly qualified" provisions of the No Child Left Behind legislation to special education teachers and strengthens and expands personnel preparation and development requirements for both special and general education personnel. Unfortunately, the House bill fails to include the funding necessary to address the shortage of highly qualified special education teachers and related services personnel for our nation’s schools.

Full Funding

Neither the House or Senate bills require full federal funding for special education. NAMI anticipates that a full funding amendment will be offered as an amendment when the Senate bill reaches the full Senate for a vote. Congress promised, in 1975, to pay 40% of the national average per pupil cost to help schools offset the excess cost of educating students with disabilities. Estimates put current federal funding levels at 18% for fiscal year 2003. Congress should live up to its commitment to fully fund IDEA and keep its promise to students with mental illnesses and other disabilities, and their families.

January 2004