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  • FALL 2007
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  • Educating the Public about the Law

 

Politics & Government

the judicial branch

Among the many important cases on the Supreme Court’s 2007-2008 docket is one that could affect every parent with a special needs student and every school with a special needs program.

While other, higher-profile cases involving issues such as the rights of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, the proper application of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in criminal cases, and the constitutionality of the lethal injection method of capital punishment have been front-page news, the less-publicized litigation in Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York v. Tom F. Ex Rel. Gilbert F., No. 06-637, could have an immediate impact on schools.

Argued October 1 -- the opening day of the Court’s new term – this case asks the Court to clarify requirements for reimbursements for parents of special-needs students. The Court will be forced to explain what exact circumstances must exist in order for parents to recieve reimbursement for private-school tuition payments when they believe their special-needs children cannot obtain a proper education in the public schools.

In his Preview article “When Does the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Permit Tuition Reimbursement?” Marquette University Law Professor Jay Grenig --- a contributing editor to the Division for Public Education’s Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases – explains why parents and educators alike are looking to the Court to give meaning to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s guarantee that all children with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate education. For more information about this and every case being argued before the Court this year, visit www.supremecourtpreview.org. This website provides free access to the briefs filed in this case as well as briefs for all upcoming cases.


 

the Legislative branch

Congress is back from its summer break and already at full speed. With Democrats still in control of the House and the Senate and with the 2008 campaign in full swing, this fall likely will prove to be a significant time for many important pieces of legislation.

State Children’s Health Insurance Program—A Standoff

A top priority for Democrats since the start of the 110th Congress has been the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). In its original form, SCHIP provides health insurance for the children of families that make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private insurance. The program was set to expire on September 30, 2007, but instead of simply reauthorizing it, Congress passed a bill expanding coverage.

This expansion was targeted at providing health insurance for virtually all children who are currently uninsured regardless of their parents’ income levels. Presently, about 9 million children, 12 percent of all American children, are uninsured. The expanded SCHIP seeks to reach out to all of these children by increasing the income level cutoffs and also the age cutoff, in some cases covering individuals up to the age of 25. Additionally, the expanded program provides states with the tools and resources to identify these uninsured children and enroll them.

As he said he would, President Bush vetoed the current SCHIP reauthorization. The President says that the expanded version of SCHIP includes too many families with incomes above the federal poverty line and directs money away from the poor. Additionally, the White House sees this proposed expansion as forcing some children out of private health insurance and into government-run health care, which according to the Administration is “an incremental step toward the Democrats’ goal of a government-run health care system.”

In response to the veto, congressional Democrats stated that they would attempt to override the veto. Currently, it is unclear whether Democrats will have enough votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override. For the time being, Congress passed holdover legislation to allow SCHIP to continue as is during the standoff. This current debate is important for many reasons: the outcome will affect the health care of millions of American children; it may show the strength, or lack thereof, of Democrats heading into the 2008 elections; and it is likely to serve as a warm-up for even larger health-care debates as we move into the campaign season and, eventually, a new administration.

Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act

Another important task for this Congress is the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Although the reauthorization will actually take place in 2008, committee hearings on this important bill have already started. This act was first enacted in 1974 and has since become a central part of the juvenile justice system. An important aspect of the JJDPA in its current form is that it provides federal grants to states to fund child protective services and research and development projects targeted at eliminating child abuse and neglect, improve investigation and prosecution of child abuse, and encourage community and family-based services.

This reauthorization process will provide Congress with a valuable opportunity to evaluate various research on child abuse and neglect, as well as a chance to review the best practices used around the country for preventing child abuse and neglect and for treating the victims. Although JJDPA has historically been reauthorized with substantial bipartisan support, currently there are some bills proposed as part of the reauthorization that would significantly alter both the act and the juvenile justice system across the country. It is important for legal, law enforcement, and child service professionals to keep up-to-date on the developments during this reauthorization and, if necessary, get involved.


 

the executive branch

It has been a busy fall for President Bush, his cabinet, and the White House. Much of the media interest has focused on the administration’s response to developments in the Iraq War and the economy. However, the executive branch has championed a number of initiatives in a variety of other areas.

College Cost Reduction Access Act of 2007

In September, President Bush signed the College Cost Reduction Access Act of 2007. This is one of the most significant overhauls of the college financial-aid system in decades. This act seeks to make college more affordable for low-income students by increasing funding for federal Pell Grants by more than $11 billion.

Pell Grants are need-based grants for low-income students. They are available for undergraduate education and, in some limited circumstances, for graduate school. Unlike loans, Pell Grants are not repaid. The new law increases the amount of funding for Pell Grants and gradually reduces the interest rate assessed on loans given low-income students.

The House and Senate Democrats were the main supporters of the act in the drafting stages; however, the White House celebrated its passage. Yet as President Bush signed the act, he also stated that it was far from prefect. President Bush said “this bill does, however, create new and duplicative programs that divert resources from Pell Grants … This bill makes some spending commitments that aren’t paid for yet.” Of particular note to the legal community, the new law includes a special loan forgiveness program for those who hold public services jobs for 10 years, and it caps federal loan payments at a certain percentage of a graduate’s income. For lawyers in the public interest field, such as public defenders, this provision provides important relief given their relatively low incomes in comparison to their substantial student debt.

No Child Left Behind—Early Results and a Fight for Reauthorization

An important focus for the Bush administration this fall is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which not only had early results reported recently but also is coming up for reauthorization. NCLB was a major Bush program in 2001 that focused on ensuring accountability in K–12 education and creating parental choice for those families with children in underperforming schools. When NCLB was first introduced, it was met with both criticism and applause and quickly became one of the more controversial initiatives of the early administration. Critics objecting to NCLB claimed that the act required schools to “teach to test,” meaning that the law placed too high of a value on standardized testing and didn’t allow enough freedom for teachers in developing their curriculum. Other critics felt that NCLB neglected any civic education.

In September 2007, “the Nation’s Report Card” was issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). One of the most comprehensive reviews of student progress since the enactment of NCLB, the Report Card is based on nationwide tests that are administered every two years. This year, NAEP announced the results for reading and math for the nation’s fourth and eight graders. Gains were seen in the scores of many minority students, specifically black and Hispanic students. The Bush administration applauded these increases and claimed that they show the effectiveness and value of NCLB. Nevertheless, critics point out that the results still show substantial achievement gaps between these students and the entire student population. Additionally, these same critics point out that these scores are similar to those recorded in 1998 (before the more recent drop in scores) and show that more needs to be done.

With this debate waging, the White House has also been pushing for the reauthorization of NCLB. The act is set to expire and Congress must pass a reauthorization bill for the program to continue. President Bush is not only urging the reauthorization, but also a strengthening of NCLB. The Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, is currently selling these proposals to Congress, including the need to raise achievement requirements and to give local leaders more flexibility. Additionally, the President asked for an updated NCLB that would “reward teachers who improve student achievement in low-income schools.” According to the President, “when you find a good teacher willing to go into a school that needs help, that teacher ought to be given an additional incentive.”