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Jewish World Review June 5, 2001 / 15 Sivan 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Congress should takes cues from the Supremes and help disabled -- THE Supreme Court did right by one disabled golfer , but Congress could help millions of disabled children if it were to fully fund and reform the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The High Court ruled 7-2 that the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act requires the PGA Tour to allow golf pro Casey Martin to use a cart because a severe circulatory ailment prevents him from walking between shots.

In the meantime, the Senate has at last adopted an amendment providing full funding of the 1975 IDEA, which helps more than 6 million children, although the Bush administration will try to kill it in a House-Senate conference.

Because of personal experience with ADA and IDEA, I have been rooting for Martin and full funding of special education for years.

My wife suffers from Parkinson's disease and is confined to a wheelchair. Were it not for the ADA, most streets and buildings would be inaccessible to her.

It was expensive -- too expensive, some conservatives said at the time -- to require buildings, schools, buses and sidewalks to be made friendly to people with disabilities. But it has improved the lives of millions. The ADA's prohibition of discrimination against people with disabilities was also a landmark expansion of civil rights, which the Supreme Court took one step further in the Martin case.

The PGA, honoring tradition more than good sense, tried to bar Martin from the pro tour on the grounds that walking is essential to the game. The High Court, sensibly, said that that argument was nonsense -- that shot-making is the essence of the game.

Dissenting conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas predicted that the Martin precedent would be used to justify lawsuits demanding that children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder be allowed four strikes instead of three in Little League games.

Wild distortions of law are certainly possible, but that possibility is no excuse for not passing or upholding the law in the first place.

A good argument can be made that the 1975 IDEA, which assures handicapped children equal educational opportunities, has been misused to the point that nearly 50 percent of special-ed children are now classified as "learning disabled."

According to a joint report by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the "New Democrat" Progressive Policy Institute, schools often classify as "disabled" the poor and minority children whom they've failed to educate. Moreover, the report states that rich parents often demand the "learning disabled" designation so their kids will receive special advantages, such as tutoring and extra time on tests.

However, I know of one case in which IDEA was indispensable -- that of my daughter Andrea, who's dyslexic. In second grade, she couldn't read and was branded as "slow" by the Montgomery County, Md., school system -- supposedly one of the nation's best.

Because her mother and I insisted -- and had the law backing us up -- she was not discarded by the schools and was provided with taped books and extra time on tests. We paid for tutoring.

The other week, Andrea received her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. It likely would never have happened without IDEA.

When Congress passed the law requiring schools to provide equal educational opportunities for disabled kids, it also promised to foot 40 percent of the bill. Then it reneged, providing no more than 13 percent annually.

For years, it has been a constant Republican refrain that instead of passing expensive new education programs, Congress should fulfill "unfunded mandates" such as IDEA.

This year, the Bush administration proposed a $1 billion increase for special ed, but has stoutly resisted a full-funding mandate, which would cost $180 billion over 10 years.

Full funding was the price Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., was demanding from the White House to ensure that he would stay a Republican. His aides say he was given no more than promises of a commission to study IDEA reforms.

On May 3, the Senate passed an amendment to the pending Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is sponsored by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., along with Jeffords. It would mandate full funding over a six-year period, providing increases of $2.5 million a year.

The administration declared that the move "would undermine fiscal discipline," obviously because it doesn't fit in the budget along with President Bush's tax cuts.

Full funding of IDEA would guarantee that disabled children get the educational benefits Congress promised them and also allow school districts to stop starving other programs to aid special-ed students.

The House version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act does not include an IDEA mandate, and GOP conferees will toe the administration line in opposing it.

However, with Jeffords' defection from the GOP, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., will be the lead Senate conferee on the bill, and he'll insist on full IDEA funding.

There's a compromise to be struck here -- full funding combined with a reform commission to tighten up assignment of children to special-ed programs. Democrats ought to agree to reform, because mis-assignments rob truly deserving students of resources, and the GOP should cough up the money.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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