Congress Poised To Increase Funding For Special Ed.
Congress has laid the groundwork for increasing its share of the costs of teaching students with disabilities, furthering a long-standing goal supported by a broad coalition of disability-rights groups, educators, and legislators from both parties.
In its nonbinding budget resolution for the fiscal year that starts next Oct. 1, the House calls for spending an additional $2 billion for state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law. The Senate Budget Committee has approved an additional $11.3 billion over five years in its budget resolution.
Supporters say an increase would help districts defray the rising expense of special education.
When the landmark legislation now known as the IDEA was adopted in 1975, lawmakers decided that the federal government should pick up 40 percent of the additional costs associated with the law's requirements. But Congress has never come close to that goal.
Spending for the IDEA has risen by 66 percent in the five years since the Republicans—who have made this issue a major priority—took control of Congress. But federal aid still amounts only to an estimated 13 percent of the total state and local costs for special education, according to the Department of Education.
For fiscal 2000, the current budget year, Congress allocated $5.75 billion for state grants under the IDEA, the second-largest federal precollegiate program. Most of that money, about $5 billion, goes to educate students ages 6 to 21 through what are known as Part B grants. The rest goes for early-childhood and preschool programs.
But there are signs that the federal contribution to special education spending could go up.
Rep. Matthew G. Martinez, D-Calif., and Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, have introduced legislation to authorize an appropriation of an additional $2 billion each year until 2010, at which time they say the federal government's contribution would meet the 40 percent mark.
Meanwhile, lobbying efforts continue to intensify. A new grassroots group from Concord, N.H., the National Campaign to Fully Fund IDEA, is aiming to collect a million signatures in support of its position to bring to Washington next January.
The Council for Exceptional Children, a special education advocacy group in Reston, Va., has recommended spending nearly $7 billion on Part B alone, with another $1 billion for early-childhood and preschool programs, in the fiscal 2001 budget. And the National School Boards Association is asking Congress to spend an additional $2.2 billion a year for the next 10 years.
"We view this proposal as a good first-year down payment on achieving our goal for full [40 percent] funding," said the NSBA's executive director, Anne L. Bryant.
Kenneth R. Warlick, the director of the department's office of special education programs, said the department wants to see more funding not only for state grants, but for research programs that would help special education teachers learn about best practices.
If current funding trends continue, the IDEA could become the largest K-12 program in the federal education budget within a few years, surpassing the $8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students.
One difficulty in determining how much the federal government should spend on special education is that officials disagree on the total cost to states and districts.
Part of the problem, according to the Center for Special Education Finance in Palo Alto, Calif., is that most states and districts do not keep accurate data on exactly how much they spend on special education services.
"It's not a trivial amount of money, no matter which way you cut it,'' said Thomas Parrish, a co-director of the center, a federally funded research group.
According to estimates by Rep. Goodling's staff, IDEA state grants for students ages 6 to 21 would need to total about $16.9 billion to meet the federal government's 40 percent target. The Congressional Research Service estimates that it would take more than $15 billion to meet that goal.
Education Department analysts, who estimate total special education spending at about $41 billion, say the actual amount needed is somewhat lower—$14.7 billion for IDEA grants for infants through age 21.
Vol. 19, Issue 31, Page 39