Published Online: April 1, 2014
Published in Print: April 2, 2014, as Chief of House Panel Vows Push to Boost Special Education Aid

House Education Chairman to Push for More Special Education Aid

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House education committee.
—Dawn Villella/AP-File

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, plans to pour new energy into a perennial priority: bolstering funding for special education.

Education advocates, Congress, and the Obama administration need to put special education funding first, Mr. Kline said in an interview following a roundtable in his district on the issue.

Participants included special education teachers; a parent of a child receiving special education services; Chris Richardson, the superintendent of the 3,700-student Northfield Public school district; Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers; and Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the NEA.

"It's easy for people to say we need to fund special education and then get distracted by many, many different things," Rep. Kline said. "We ought to be meeting the federal government's commitment to funding special education and that ought to be the first priority."

But it's unclear how Rep. Kline's goal of significantly growing the federal bottom line for special education—which now stands at roughly $11.5 billion—will square with an austere budget climate that leaves little room for new, big increases to any single program. It is also unclear how the proposal will fare in his own party, which is resistant to spending increases generally.

Last week, Rep. Kline held a roundtable in his district, near the Twin Cities, on special education. This isn't a new issue for Rep. Kline, who has criticized President Barack Obama in the past for neglecting to increase formula grants—such as special education funding—while boosting competitive grants, such as the president's signature Race to the Top program.

And earlier this year, Rep. Kline was one of more than 130 lawmakers to sign onto a letter asking the president to boost funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in his most recent budget request. Despite their efforts, the administration ultimately asked for level funding in fiscal 2015, which covers the 2015-16 school year.

Meeting the Commitment

Under the IDEA, the federal government initially was supposed to pick up 40 percent of the excess cost of educating students with disabilities, but it has continually fallen short of that goal.

House Democrats—led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee—have been trying to get mandatory funding for IDEA for years. Mr. Van Hollen and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers recently re-introduced a bill that would make full funding for the program essentially automatic, as it is for Social Security and Medicare.

Although Mr. Kline supports increased special education spending, he's not sure shifting the program to the mandatory side of the ledger is the way to go, particularly as lawmakers are working to rein in spending.

"I think we're going to push to put less money into the automatic-pilot, mandatory mode," he said. "I'm resistant to that. We already have too much in the entitlement pile."

Rep. Kline said he'd like to use his position to champion special education spending by reaching out to colleagues and the administration on the issue.

Ideally, he'd like to see the federal government meet its 40 percent commitment sometime in the next three to five years.

"I think we can set it on path" toward full funding, Rep. Kline said. "That will be a good debate to have."

The natural forum for that discussion would be the reauthorization of the IDEA, the law that governs special education. It was last renewed in 2004. But it would be hard to tackle IDEA by the end of the year, Rep. Kline said.

What's more, there are significant challenges to boosting funding for special education, said Clare McCann, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project.

Rep. Kline didn't name a specific goal for IDEA funding, but Ms. McCann estimates that fully meeting the federal obligation for IDEA would have cost about $27.8 billion in federal fiscal 2010. Special education was funded at $11.5 billion that year, or less than half the total needed for full funding. The program has been virtually frozen for years.

Even hiking up financing for IDEA gradually would be difficult, she said.

A recent budget agreement hammered out by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., left little room for increases to domestic spending in the current budget year, Ms. McCann noted.

"Increasing the funding is a far greater challenge than usual because we have these limits in place," she said. Even as the education chairman, Rep. Kline doesn't have much control over the purse strings for K-12 spending. That's largely the purview of the House Appropriations Committee, which sets spending levels.

For her part, Ms. Kusler had high praise for Rep. Kline's commitment to the issue.

"Clearly, the chairman has been a leader on special education issues," she said in an interview. "You spend just five minutes with him, or you sit through a committee hearing with him, and you can see his passion on that issue shine through. It's even more critical now that we're talking about an issue with few resources."

Rep. Kline's championship of the issue may be related to his regular meetings with school superintendents in his district, who see special education funding as a priority.

Re-Election Challenge

It's worth noting that Rep. Kline—who has made it clear he'd like to remain as chairman of the education committee in the next Congress—has a potentially tough re-election bid in his suburban Minnesota swing district. President Obama took the district by less than 300 votes in 2012, but Rep. Kline won a fairly decisive victory of 54 to 46 percent over his Democratic opponent, Mike Obermueller, a lawyer and former state lawmaker who is challenging him again this time around.

Related Blog

Still, Mr. Kline has been a target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has criticized him for his support of for-profit colleges. And the Union Advocate, the official publication of the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, ran an article last year chastising Rep. Kline on the impact of federal across-the-board cuts on special education. The cuts, which were put forth by Republicans and Democrats to force a budget compromise, have since been partially reversed.

Rep. Kline is considered a conservative and an ally of Rep. John A. Boehner, the speaker of the House. But he's worked with Democrats on some K-12 issues, including charter school legislation.

Education Minnesota didn't endorse Rep. Kline in 2012. But the union, an affiliate of both the NEA and the American Federation ofTeachers, didn't offer support to Mr. Obermueller, either.

If Rep. Kline were to lose his seat—and if the GOP keeps control of the House, as expected—he would likely be replaced as chairman by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who has been called one of Congress' "most vocal conservatives." Some in her party consider her a "passionate voice of reason," but she is seen by critics on the left as "a loose cannon," according to The Almanac of American Politics, which tracks members of Congress.

Vol. 33, Issue 27, Pages 22,27

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