New York Times: Back to School

December 13, 2001


ASHINGTON -- A year ago, when I was chairman of the Senate Education Committee, I joined several senators and representatives from both parties and traveled to Austin, Tex., to meet with George W. Bush, the president-elect, to discuss education reform. At that time, we all pledged to work together to pass an education reform bill that would raise school accountability and improve student achievement. With budget surpluses projected as far as the eye could see, it seemed that this nation was on the verge of making a significant investment in education. For me, it was a time of optimism and hope.

What a difference a year makes. Today we face a very different economic reality. We also have an administration unwilling to support the financing necessary to carry out its own education initiative.

There is no question that we need to improve our schools. National tests show only one in five American high school seniors proficient in math and science, and only two in five in reading.

Now I fear we may pass legislation that will do far more harm than good. As currently drafted, the education bill requires our schools to make significant improvements in a short time — without providing the necessary resources.

State and local education budgets throughout the country are already facing severe cuts. This bill will make matters worse. Various estimates indicate we will fall several billion dollars short of covering the new bill's mandates. History all too often repeats itself. Unless we support the bill's requirements with adequate funds, I am afraid we will be repeating a mistake we made 26 years ago.

When I arrived in Congress, one of the first bills I worked on created what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. We wrote the legislation to ensure that children with disabilities receive the special education and related services they need and to which they have a constitutional right.

We recognized that children with disabilities often require specialized services and that educating children with disabilities could be twice as costly as educating children without disabilities. Therefore, in 1975, we authorized the federal government to pay up to 40 percent of each state's added expenditures for educating children with disabilities. Yet now the federal government still provides only about 15 percent.

Special education has been an incredibly important program for millions of children. Graduation rates have increased, and the number of young adults with disabilities enrolling in college has more than tripled. Special education has helped people with disabilities become independent, wage-earning, tax-paying contributors to our country. But special education is very costly, and by not providing the federal funds we promised, we force states and local school districts to increase property taxes and shift funds from other programs.

Earlier this year the Senate agreed without objection to a bipartisan amendment introduced by Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Hagel that would require Congress to fund the 40 percent of special education costs in full. This was a great victory for all of our children. I am outraged, however, that a majority of my colleagues on the conference committee voted not to include this amendment.

I am deeply concerned that this bill will further saddle our school systems with federal requirements they cannot afford to meet. I have been in Congress for more than 25 years and have never voted against an education bill. But to pass this bill as it stands would be counterproductive. It is better to approve no bill than to approve a bad one.


Jim Jeffords, independent of Vermont, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.