By Joseph H. Huber

The New Political Agenda and Reauthorization of IDEA: Implications and Strategies for Action

Everything in
Washington has changed.

The Republicans have gained control of the Senate for the first time since 1987, and of the Congress for the first time since the Eisenhower era. The depth of their victory can be measured by the fact that no sitting Republican governor, senator or representative was defeated in November. The G.O.P. has promised a balanced budget (by the year 2000) which alone will require a trillion dollars of spending cuts. A couple of weeks after the election, the editorial page of The New York Times (1994, November 26) commented on the Republican victory: "They ran on a platform that told Americans how they would transform society by, in part, ripping away every strand of the social safety net."

In general, the consequences of the election may not bode well for education and specifically for this year's reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The reauthorization of IDEA, which is critical for the continuance of many physical education and recreation programs and services for children with disabilities, has recently come under attack. The Council for Exceptional Children's (CEC) monthly newsletter Today (February, 1995) notes that, "The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, recently stated IDEA has little effect on the educational progress of children with disabilities and has called for its repeal." In addition, while the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance's (AAHPERD) newsletter Update (March/April, 1995) stated that the Americans with Disabilites Act is defined as a "civil right" and will be exempt from congressional action; such will not be the case for IDEA.

Martin Block, Chairperson of the Adapted Physical Activity Council, recently expressed concern about the reauthorization of IDEA. He stated, "The ramifications for students with disabilities, as well as regular and adapted physical education professionals can be catastrophic." Adapted physical education programs as we now know them may be in jeopardy. Parts A & B of IDEA that address direct services to children with disabilities may not be amended. However, many professionals worry that Parts C through H, in particular personnel development training grants awarded to colleges and universities for the professional preparation of future adapted physical education teachers, doctoral leadership programs, and research grants, may be cut back or dissolved.

How political forces balance out will ultimately determine if IDEA will survive, and if it does, what form it will take. Claudine Sherrill and William Hillman once told the profession that, "Tremendous time and energy must be devoted to advocacy activities approximately every three years when reauthorization legislation is being enacted" (Leadership Training in Adapted Physical Education, 1988). Their words were quite profound then and certainly ring true today.

David Auxter, Senior Scientist for the Researc:.h Institute for Independent Living, stresses that today's political landscape requires a grassroots effort that will enable organizational advocacy at different levels of government. The Republican emphasis on block grants will transfer funding of programs from the federal level to state and local governments. In today's political climate, a new and effective advocacy organization must be developed to serve the profession:. an infrastructure that ties local, state, and federal interests together. Auxter envisions an organizational structure similar to CEC's effective Political Action Network.

The most important prerequisite to effective advocacy is the development of a message that clearly states the value that can be derived from delivery of physical education services. Auxter notes that the message should be interwoven withtoday's "more accepted political outcomes", i.e., those linked to independent life in the community (e.g., self-empowerment, responsibility, self-sufficiency).

Action must be taken soon. Senate informational hearings and staff-level briefings on reauthorization of IDEA are being held during May and June. It is most desirable to have representatives at the grassroots level make personal visits to their U.S. Senators and Representatives. Letters to Senators Frist, Kassebaum, and Dole, and Representatives Cunningham, Goodling, and Gingrich are also encouraged.

The profession's efforts to effectively ensure the reauthorization of IDEA may be just the first mile of what could turn out to be a grueling marathon. For example, Senator Dole just announced his intentions to run for President in 1996. If elected, he would eliminate the Department of Education in an effort to reduce what he considers wasteful spending and unneeded programs. What impact would dismantling the Department of Education have on physical education services in the future? Perhaps the "watch words" for today's politics are eternal vigilance.