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Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2003

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. PRYOR. Mr. President, I rise today to commend my colleagues, the senior Senator from Massachusetts, Mr. Kennedy, and the senior Senator from New Hampshire, Mr. Gregg, for their work on a very important piece of legislation that is so vital to many parents, teachers, school administrators, and most importantly, children in the State of Arkansas and across this country. It is especially important that on issues such as this we have bipartisan cooperation, and I thank my colleagues for ensuring that cooperation and the quick action we have seen on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act yesterday and today.

I have heard from many of my constituents about IDEA, and they have expressed a wide range of concerns about various aspects of the legislation, from discipline, to due process, to funding, to individualized education programs. And we all know that no one got everything they wanted from this reauthorization. But that is the nature of compromise. That is the nature of legislating in this body. It is my hope that we can find more opportunities to work in the bipartisan manner that Senator Kennedy and Senator Gregg demonstrated in managing this bill.

Just to remind my colleagues, though I know they do not need reminding, because so many of them hear the same concerns I do from their home States, we cannot overstate how important IDEA is to so many and how it touches the lives of our children every day. I would like to relate the comments of one of my constituents, Tracey Smith, of Springdale, AR.

Ms. Smith's son, Kyle, is an 8-year-old who has been the beneficiary of IDEA since 2000. Kyle's family moved from Texas to Arkansas during the middle of a school year, and Ms. Smith called me to talk about how IDEA has helped Kyle and to talk about some of her concerns with the pending reauthorization. She stressed how important yearly IEPs were for her son and how short-term goals were so vital to her son's long-term achievement. It is important that IEPs continue to be revisited on a yearly basis, and I am encouraged that we have managed to ensure this important aspect of special education will remain in the Senate legislation.

Furthermore, Ms. Smith was nervous that people in Washington, who do not experience on a day-to-day basis the trials parents and children have to face, would not understand how changes we make affect their daily lives. IDEA has provided much-needed flexibility for parents, and this legislation continues in that manner. As Ms. Smith told me:

As a parent I appreciate and value the freedom that IDEA gives parents and educators to address an individual child's needs.

And that is what this is about, individual children and individual parents. It is about addressing their educational needs and concerns, addressing their daily struggles in the hopes that we can make their lives a little more normal, even if it is only for 1 day. I admire parents like Tracey Smith, and I commend her for having the courage to remind us of the effect we have on persons we may not always know.

I know there will be many issues related to civil rights, discipline, due process, and highly qualified teachers to address in the conference with the House of Representatives. I hope they are resolved in the same bipartisan manner in which this bill was crafted in the Senate and with parents and children in mind. We have worked hard to ensure civil rights protections for children and parents, and I hope they are not diminished. We have worked hard to craft discipline provisions that protect all of our children while understanding disabled children have special needs, and I hope we can continue to ensure the safety of our schools. We have worked hard to include protections for due process, and I hope any differences are resolved to ensure parents know and understand their rights under the law without giving unfair advantage to any one party. We have worked hard to make sure our children have proper instruction, and I hope we continue to ensure proper instruction without discouraging individuals from entering the field of special education. Most of all, I hope we have a finished product that all parents, educators, and, most importantly, children can benefit from.

This is a bipartisan bill, and I am pleased with the progress we have made in the past couple of days in regards to funding, ensuring services to our military families and homeless and foster children, and reducing burdensome paperwork for our teachers. I am, however, disappointed that we failed to make full funding mandatory. Senators HARKIN and HAGEL have worked very hard to ensure the Federal Government lives up to the promises we made to our disabled children, parents, and schools almost 30 years ago. I was very pleased to join in that worthy cause, and I will continue to work with my friends on both sides of the aisle until we meet our commitments. As we in this body are all aware, funding is not always the answer, and it is never the only answer. But many times we see that inadequately funding the mandates we force on States and local districts are such a large piece of the puzzle. We cannot honestly say we are doing all we can to advance education for disabled children unless we meet those funding commitments. It doesn't do us any good to educate some and leave others behind. Instead of providing opportunity for many of our children, we are closing doors to them. Instead of educating and instructing future productive citizens, we are, in some cases, neglecting those who will become dependent on Government and those who will live a life of despair.

I believe fully funding IDEA is not just a commitment we have made, but also an investment in our children. By appropriating the necessary funds to fully fund IDEA, we can provide our teachers the tools and resources they need to do what they do best-educate all of our children to the extent that they not only participate in but contribute to society. It is an investment we should and we can afford to make. Several of my colleagues made the point that by making full funding mandatory, Congress would somehow lose the ability to revisit and change the adjustments we have made in this legislation. I disagree. I would ask my colleagues, when has Congress failed to address problematic aspects of any piece of legislation when it was so warranted? When has the Congress given up oversight of any area of responsibility? I would venture to guess that mandatory funding of IDEA would not prevent this body from revisiting IDEA if and when it becomes necessary.

We have made progress toward living up to our commitments in recent years. We should be proud of that progress. In fact, when IDEA was brought into existence in 1975, Congress funded less than 7 percent of the excess costs to schools for special education. In 2004, we funded close to 19 percent of excess costs. We have made progress, no one denies that, but as the Senator from Iowa, Mr. Harkin, so eloquently pointed out: We should not be concerned with what we have done. We should be concerned with what we will do now to reach our commitments. I commend this body for realizing we need to do more for special education. But if we continue to make piecemeal increases in IDEA, we will never reach full funding under current law. I hope in the coming months and years we can make progress toward fulfilling the 40 percent commitment. We can do better. We can do more. And I commend and thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their leadership and commitment to this issue.

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