Federal

Senate Backs ‘Full Funding’ Of Special Ed.

By Erik W. Robelen — May 09, 2001 8 min read
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The federal government would pump up to $181 billion into special education over the next 10 years, under a provision the Senate adopted last week just hours after it began deliberations on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Passage of the amendment on May 3, with an ease that caught even its proponents by surprise, came on a voice vote with just three members on the Senate floor.

With Republican leaders realizing they did not have the votes to defeat the proposal, they did not ask for a roll call for members to cast recorded votes, Senate aides said.

“The passage of our amendment finally puts our money where our mouths are and makes the [federal] government true partners in funding this education priority with state and local governments,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D- Iowa, who co-sponsored the amendment with Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

“That is what was promised when [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] was created,” Mr. Harkin said, “and that is what this amendment will deliver, plain and simple.”

The provision, actually an amendment to the IDEA rather than the ESEA, would shift IDEA funding from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the federal budget and increase such spending by nearly $2.5 billion annually over the next six years.

Still subject to approval by the House, where it is likely to face resistance, the move to “mandatory” status is intended to ensure that the money would no longer be subject to the politics of the annual appropriations process.

It seeks to guarantee that the federal government would “fully fund” the IDEA, an elusive goal ever since Congress first enacted the law in 1975.

Currently, the state-grants program for the IDEA is funded at $6.34 billion a year. The amendment would increase yearly funding under the IDEA to up to $21 billion by 2007.

The special education law says states can get per-pupil federal aid for the cost of serving students with disabilities of up to 40 percent of the average national per-pupil expenditure in public elementary and secondary schools.

Advocates see the 40 percent aid level as a promise Congress has failed to keep; some other observers see that level strictly as a ceiling, not a pledge or goal.

Federal aid at the 40 percent level under the IDEA is commonly referred to as “full funding.”

Leeway on Use

The change, assuming it survives the lawmaking process, could mean districts would have significantly more money or could lower the local tax burden.

The amendment stipulates that a district could use up to 55 percent of the increased funds to supplant what it is already spending. And, if the district could show that it was already sufficiently serving all children eligible for special education, it could use up to 100 percent for other purposes.

Mr. Harkin set the stage for last week’s move with an amendment to the Senate budget resolution last month allowing special education funding to become mandatory. (“Plans Floated To Guarantee Spec. Ed. Aid,” April 25, 2001.)

But that provision died in a deal worked out last week between congressional leaders and the White House.

Some Republicans object in principle to shifting the special education money to the mandatory side of the budget.

“It’s a terrible, terrible way to legislate,” said a Senate GOP aide, who asked not to be named. He predicted that making the spending mandatory would encourage states and localities to place more students in special education unnecessarily.

“The votes weren’t there to defeat it [in the Senate],” the aide said. However, the aide predicted that the measure would be killed when the House and the Senate seek to reconcile their versions of the ESEA later this year. “I can’t imagine the House will accept that,” he said.

ESEA Debate Begins

The Senate last Thursday launched into what is likely to be about two weeks of debate over the reauthorization of the ESEA, the main federal law for K-12 education, after settling members’ differences on some lingering policy issues.

While Democrats and Republicans have agreed on the framework for the bill, each side will offer a range of amendments during the debate.

Democrats, for example, are sure to offer amendments to ensure funding specifically for reducing class sizes and school construction. Republican amendments will include at least several that would provide federal money for private school vouchers.

At the same time, Senate Democrats and the White House remain at loggerheads over spending. Democrats want more money for the Department of Education than President Bush has put forward.

At press time last Friday, it remained unclear how close lawmakers and the administration were to resolving that matter. But reportedly the two sides were less than $1 billion apart last week, with Democrats negotiating down to an offer of almost $5 billion in additional money next year for ESEA programs, and the White House holding fast at $4 billion.

Meanwhile, at a bipartisan press briefing on May 3, senators praised the ESEA plan they had negotiated.

“I’m sure that there are people who wonder, they’re curious about a bill that Senator Kennedy and I can sit here and endorse together,” said Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., referring to Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat. “But we did find common ground. All of us had different priorities. Things we would have liked to have seen more of.”

He added: “I do want to say that the president will in this legislation … get a great deal of what he campaigned on.”

The plan the Senate is considering contains many core elements of President Bush’s agenda, such as his demand for testing of students in reading and mathematics each year in grades 3-8, more flexibility in spending federal aid, and tougher demands on states, districts, and schools to improve student performance.

It does not, though, contain Mr. Bush’s call for school vouchers. The president originally proposed that students in a persistently failing school be allowed to take a portion of the school’s federal aid to attend another school, whether public or private, or to pay for private tutoring. Democrats, who have significant leverage in the evenly divided Senate, insisted that the private-school-voucher provision be stripped from the bill.

Under the plan as negotiated, a vestige of Mr. Bush’s proposal remains, however. After a school had been failing for three years, the district would, at a parent’s request, be required to direct a portion of the school’s federal Title I aid to pay for private tutoring, or to pay transportation costs for a child to attend another public school.

Ultimately, after five years of persistent failure, a school would have to be reconstituted. That step would involve several options, such as shutting the school down and reopening it as a charter school, replacing all or most of the school staff, or turning the school’s operation over to the state.

“This is a very different relationship that we are constructing between the federal government and America’s schools,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., a supporter of the compromise plan. But, pointing to the main remaining difference between Senate Democrats and the White House, Mr. Lieberman argued that more money was essential.

“We are asking so much more of our educators, our local schools,” he said. “If we don’t match those requirements with resources, we’re going to predestine too many of them to failure.”

‘Big Deal’ on IDEA

While funding for the ESEA was still unclear last week, special education advocates savored what is, for now, a multibillion-dollar victory on the Harkin-Hagel amendment on IDEA funding.

“This is a very big deal,” said a Senate Democratic aide, who asked not to be named. “We thought [the vote] might be close. ... It wasn’t in the bag. Then it ended up being a cakewalk.”

“It’s extremely exciting that sufficient funds would come into states,” said Rhoda Benedetti, a lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates, an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit group that provides research, education, and legal advocacy.

She said the additional funding, if ultimately approved, would take away excuses from states, which she said often blame the fact that they can’t provide certain services on a lack of federal aid.

“Infusing this program with [more] federal dollars, we would hope, would make the promise of IDEA become a reality in the classroom,” Ms. Benedetti said.

Ironically, the move came after congressional and White House negotiators decided to eliminate Senate provisions added by Democrats last month that would have taken a portion of President Bush’s proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut to pay for an additional $250 billion over 10 years for education and related programs.

While a compromise worked out later by Republicans, a group of centrist Democrats, and the White House would scale back the tax cut and provide slightly more for federal agencies overall, the deal did not include the Senate’s $250 billion boon for education.

The Senate was able to take up the ESEA legislation after lawmakers and the White House settled some key differences.

One of the issues involved negotiating language on how a state would measure whether a school or district was making enough progress each year toward academic proficiency for its students.

Some were concerned that the definition not be so strict as to send huge numbers of schools into that category.

The final agreement would require states, districts, and schools to show progress overall, but would set a somewhat more forgiving progress standard for subgroups such as minority students and those with limited English proficiency.

“You’ve got to show at least some progress in every category,” said Sen. Lieberman.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Senate Backs ‘Full Funding’ Of Special Ed.

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