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Separate Education for Those in Special Education? Possibly

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Will the teachers of students with disabilities, teachers who in many cases work with all subjects, have to meet a lesser standard than their counterparts? And will expectations for students with disabilities be lowered, too?

Maybe.

Those were some of the proposals offered during last week's markup of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

One amendment offered by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would have removed the requirement that teachers of students with disabilities be "highly qualified."

The current version of ESEA, the No Child Left Behind law, says that all teachers must have degrees in the subject they teach and be state-certified, and the bill passed by the committee last week and headed for the Senate floor retains that language.

Why would Sen. Paul offer to give special educators a break on that requirement? Because meeting the requirement can be especially complex for special education teachers, who may teach many subjects, but who may only have degrees in special education.

"Teachers do face complications in meeting 'highly qualified'" requirements, said Lindsay Jones, senior director for policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children. But "we should not bluntly remove them."

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act already provides some exceptions for special education teachers so they can attain the qualification, she said. "The fear is setting up a separate system of education."

While the amendment was quashed in the committee, Jones said she is sure it will resurface when the bill is debated by the full Senate.

Another proposal that died in the committee came from Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. He wanted to do away with limits on how many students with disabilities could take alternate tests, which are different than those their classmates take.

"The underlying concern we have with Isakson and Paul [is that their message is] 'It's too difficult to accommodate you, so let's separate you," Jones said. "When that happens, it's separate but not equal. It's not a 21st century vision of society."

But don't count that proposal out, either, she said.

While there are still some things in the bill that affect students with disabilities that the CEC and other groups dislike, Jones applauded the education committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, for his remarks during the discussion of Isakson's testing proposal. If it passes in the long run, there is concern that the education of students with disabilities could become watered down.

She said Harkin tried to keep the focus on high expectations for these students. Harkin said that even kids with disabilities need a kick in the pants every once in a while, she recalled.

One thing that didn't come up at all, disappointing some advocates, was a proposal related to curbing the use of restraints and seclusion with students, although Sen. Harkin mentioned it during the debate.

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