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Senate Passes Murray's Amendment to Improve Special Education for Disabled Children who Frequently Change Schools

May 12 2004

Full Senate approves Murray's bipartisan amendment to the IDEA bill which will help disabled students who are homeless, in foster care, or in military or migrant families

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Today, in a victory for disabled students and their families, the U.S. Senate approved a bipartisan amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) offered by Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).



Murray’s amendment, which passed on a voice vote, will provide improved access to a high-quality education for four specific groups: disabled children who are homeless, disabled children in foster care, disabled children in military families, and disabled children in migrant families. The amendment targets these students because they change schools frequently. That lack of continuity often prevents them from getting the special education services they need.



"This is a major victory for America’s most vulnerable disabled students. It ensures that a high quality education will follow them whenever they have to move to another school,” Murray said. “I’m so glad that my colleagues in the Senate supported this crucial amendment to IDEA because it helps these kids reach their full potential.”



Murray’s amendment would improve special education for homeless and foster children with disabilities and for children with disabilities in military or migrant families by:

  • Improving special education services when children transfer school districts and coordination between school districts on assessments and evaluations;
  • Ensuring that students’ records are transferred quickly between schools when students move;
  • Clarifying which appropriate adults can advocate for children with regard to their special education services;
  • Improving coordination between McKinney Vento and IDEA and overall representation of homeless and foster children in IDEA;
  • Strengthening services for infants and toddlers with disabilities who are homeless, in foster care, or in military families;
  • Ensuring that homeless and foster children with disabilities, children with disabilities in military families and their advocates are represented on state policy committees;
  • And improving inclusion of children with disabilities who are homeless, in foster care, and in military families in research and training grants.


As a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Murray has worked closely with Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Judd Gregg (R-NH), who originally introduced the bill in June 2003. Murray’s amendment is the culmination of those efforts.

Now the pending IDEA reauthorization bill (which includes the Murray Amendment) must pass the full Senate. A vote is scheduled for noon tomorrow (Thursday, May 13th).

"I'm very proud today that our hard work on behalf of disabled children's education is paying off. Our amendment makes a very good bill even better," Murray said.

Here are some of the vulnerable groups of disabled students who would be helped by Murray’s amendment.

Foster Children

There are over 500,000 children in foster care, thirty percent of whom are in special education. Children in foster care are often shuttled between many different homes and schools. In addition, foster children often don’t have parents to advocate for their educational needs. Without a parent advocate, foster children can languish for years with unrecognized disabilities or insufficient services to help them succeed in school.



Homeless Children

Homeless children also face significant hurdles to succeed in school, which are exacerbated for children with disabilities. The Urban Institute estimates that 1.35 million children experience homelessness each year. A high proportion of homeless children with disabilities also need special education services, yet many homeless children have great difficulty accessing these services. Children who experience homelessness desperately need stability in their lives, but they often lack the continuity of staying in one school or even in one school district long enough for an Individualized Education Plan to be developed and implemented within their state’s current law timeline.



Children in Military Families

According to the Military Child Education Coalition, 13 percent of children in military families receive special education services or support. Further, children in military families move an average of every two to three years, which translates into attending six to nine schools from kindergarten until high school graduation. Children with disabilities in these highly mobile families often lack consistency in services, which causes them to fall behind their classmates as they move. Especially in times of war and when parents are extending stays abroad, children in military families need support and stability in their lives and education services.



Migrant Children

Migrant children change schools frequently making it especially hard for disabled migrant children to get a high quality, continuous education. In addition, language barriers can make it harder for migrant students to get special education services.



Senator Murray's remarks, as delivered on the Senate floor before the vote on the amendment, follow:



“Mr. President, I rise to offer a bipartisan amendment with Senators DeWine and Feingold to ensure that our country’s most vulnerable disabled students can reach their full potential.



Today the Senate is discussing IDEA – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It’s based on the American principle of equal opportunity. IDEA recognizes that students have a civil right to a free, appropriate public education, even if they have special needs that require additional resources. We still have a long way to go to meet the federal government’s promise to fund 40 percent of special education, and we are working on that challenge.



In the meantime, we must to address the unique needs facing three groups of disabled students, and I’m honored to join with Senators DeWine and Feingold in offering this bipartisan amendment. Our amendment makes small but important to changes to IDEA to ensure that disabled students who are homeless, who live in foster homes, or who have their education disrupted because of their family’s military service get the help they need.

I would like to thank the following organizations for their help and support of this amendment:

  • The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth,
  • The Military Family Education Coalition,
  • STOMP, Specialized Training of Military Parents,
  • The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools,
  • The Children’s Defense Fund,
  • The National Education Association,
  • The National PTA,
  • The National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association,
  • The Council for Exceptional Children, and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Education Task Force.


The Consortium represents more than 70 national disability organizations, including the American Occupational Therapy Association, the Arc, the United Cerebral Palsy Association, Easter Seals, the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education and Teacher Education Division, and the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Association. All of these organizations understand the challenges facing our most vulnerable children and all of them support our bipartisan amendment.



Mr. President, Congress has a long and proud tradition of supporting and protecting educational opportunity for our most vulnerable young people. It’s what we did when we passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, it’s what we did when we created Head Start, and it’s what we did when we started giving out Pell Grants. It’s time for us to step up once again and make the changes needed to make IDEA work for homeless and foster children with disabilities and children with disabilities in military families.



I want to take a moment to describe the special changes facing these children and then explain how our amendment will help them.



Let me start with foster children because today in American there are nearly 500,000 children in foster care. Thirty percent of them are in special education. We know that foster children often do not function well in school because of their experiences. Foster children have usually been separated from their biological families because of child abuse or neglect. That can leave both emotional and physical marks for life. Given the shortage of foster parents in our country, children in foster care are often shuttled between many different homes and schools.



One young man shared with me his story of living in more than one hundred homes throughout his childhood. Often, every new home means enrolling in a new school. Every new school means starting over in getting the support and services they need.



In addition to frequent absences and transfers, foster children often don’t have parents to advocate for their educational needs. Almost every parent whose child has a disability will tell you that their role as advocate for their child directly impacts the quality of the education their child receives. Without a parent to advocate for them, foster children can languish for years with unrecognized disabilities or insufficient services to help them succeed in school. These experiences can leave children in foster care without the education and support to lead functional, productive lives.



I want to share the true story of two foster children in New York City who need the help that this amendment provides. Eric and his sister, Joanna, have been in foster care for six years. They’ve been in four different foster homes, and each home was in a different borough. Each time they were moved to a new home, they were taken out of school in the middle of the school year. Frequently, they were not re-enrolled in their new schools for weeks or months, and their records were not transferred from school to school.



Both Eric and Joanna have learning disabilities. Each time they arrived in a new school, the teachers did not know that they needed special education services. Thus, over the years, Eric and Joanna missed months of school and have only occasionally received the services they need. Upon their last move to a foster home in Queens, Eric’s new high school refused to enroll him because he was 16 and had no credits.



Advocates for Children assisted Eric and Joanna’s caseworker in enrolling both students in school after they had been out of school for 3 months. Their advocates also secured records from two years ago that showed that Eric had obtained 10 credits and passed a Regents exam. Because these records were never transferred, Eric had been placed in 9th grade for the third time. Eric’s current guidance counselor was informed at school, and Eric’s records are being transferred.



Our amendment helps disabled foster children like Eric and Joanna by ensuring their records follow them from school to school quickly, and ensuring that they have an advocate who is on their side in developing an education plan.



Let me turn to another group of students our amendment will help. Homeless children in our country also face significant hurdles to succeed in school, and these hurdles are even higher for homeless children who have disabilities. The Urban Institute estimates that 1.35 million children experience homelessness each year. A high proportion of homeless children with disabilities also need special education services, yet many have trouble getting the help they need.



Children experiencing homelessness are diagnosed with learning disabilities at twice the rate of other children. They suffer from emotional or behavioral problems that interfere with learning at almost three times the rate of other children. These mental and emotional difficulties often begin at birth, as infants who are homeless have higher rates of low birth weight and need special care immediately after birth four times as often as other children.



Like other children and youth surviving in extreme poverty, homeless children and youth face appalling living conditions. Many of these horrific conditions directly contribute to physical, mental and emotional disabilities. For example, students experiencing homelessness often suffer from: poor nutrition; inadequate health care; higher rates of other health problems; and severe emotional stress related to conditions of extreme poverty and instability.



Unfortunately, even though homeless children suffer from disabilities at a disproportionate rate, children who are homeless are underserved by special education programs. A recent study of children in homeless shelters in Los Angeles found that while 45 percent of the children met the criteria for a special education evaluation, only 22 percent had ever received special education testing or placement. In 2000, 50 percent of states reporting data to the U.S. Department of Education reported that students in homeless situations had difficulties accessing special education programs.



Children who experience homelessness desperately need stability in their lives, but they can’t stay in the same school – or even the same district – long enough for an Individualized Education Plan to be developed and implemented. In addition, like foster children, some homeless youth have no legal guardian to watch out for their educational needs and to advocate for their best interests.



I would like to share the story of a young girl in Virginia who our amendment would help.



A 13-year-old girl and her mother fled domestic violence and – over the course of two years -- moved among temporary living situations in several school districts. The girl suffered extreme trauma and was hospitalized on two occasions. The hospital evaluations clearly showed that she qualified for special education, and her mother had requested special education services from several school districts.



However, because they moved around, no school ever completed the evaluation process. Each successive school started the process over from the beginning. Even when the girl attended a single school for several months, the school did not complete the evaluation process. Instead, it chose to "wait it out" until the family moved again. Finally, the girl's mother found a special education attorney to take on her case. Our amendment would help students like her by ensuring that homeless students have continuous educational services no matter how many times they are forced to move.



Finally, Mr. President, I want to turn to a third group of disabled students whose special circumstances are often overlooked. Children in military families often experience disruptions in their education because they move frequently. According to the Military Child Education Coalition, 13 percent of children in military families receive special education services or other special support. Further, children in military families move an average of every two to three years. That translates into attending six to nine schools from kindergarten until high school graduation.



Children with disabilities in these highly mobile families need consistent services so they don’t fall further behind each time they move. Especially in times of war and when parents are serving our country on extended tours of duty, children in military families need support and stability in their lives and in their education. I’d like to share some of the words I’ve received from military families across the country who support my amendment. I received a letter from Natalie Cyphers of McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Natalie writes,



“Thank you for your consideration of military families with special needs children. My husband is active duty Air Force and we have a 14-year-old with mild cognitive deficiency. I find one of the hardest parts of our son's education occurs every time we move. It is difficult to implement the current IEP and often the educators do not realize the importance of continuity for our children. Any assistance in these situations would be helpful to all of us.”

That’s from Natalie Cyphers at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.



I received a letter from Kristina Rice of Boise, Idaho. Kristina is a parent of a disabled child and a case manager for children with disabilities. She wrote that:



“The members of highly-mobile military families who suffer most educationally are children with disabilities as transitions are more difficult, and levels of service vary greatly from state to state. Evaluation processes are cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming, and the children being served do not have the time to wait while new teachers and service providers try to re-create a picture of their needs and re-determine eligibility.



Once several months have gone by without adequate services, a child may regress so far that he or she can lose a whole school year. [The] suggestions in this amendment are practical, fair, and necessary. Military families already sacrifice enough to serve our country. They do not need the added burden of delayed services for their children.”



That’s from Kristina Rice of Boise, Idaho. Mr. President, these stories reflect just a few of the many disabled students this amendment will help.



Specifically, our amendment will help students who change schools or school districts by ensuring that all students receive continued special education services when they transfer schools. Our amendment ensures that records are transferred quickly so that students don't waste critical time. Our amendment increases opportunities for early evaluation and intervention for homeless and foster infants and toddlers with disabilities, and for children with disabilities in military families.



Our amendment also ensures that these vulnerable children are represented on the state policy committees that decide their future. In addition, our amendment expands the definition of “parent” to include relatives or other caregivers who are equipped to make sound decisions in a child’s best interest when there is no biological parent available to do so. Finally, our amendment improves coordination of services and information so that educational and social services agencies can work together more efficiently to help these students.



As we reauthorize IDEA, we have an obligation to pay extra attention to these children and to provide the resources and support they need. The real test of how we treat children in America is measured in how we treat the most vulnerable among us, and this amendment gives us a chance to do the right thing. I urge the Senate to join with more than 70 national disability, military family, foster, homeless and education organizations in supporting the bipartisan Murray/DeWine amendment.”