Special Education

GOP Puts Priority on Raising IDEA Funding

By Joetta L. Sack — May 20, 1998 5 min read
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The House may have been in the midst of debating a voucher bill late last month, but Rep. Bill Goodling clearly had special education money on his mind when he strode to the chamber’s lectern.

The influential Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee wanted to get his message across to Democrats: Drastically increase the funding to states for the nation’s main special education program, the 23-year-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or else.

“I get fed up when I hear the other side keep talking about pupil-teacher ratio, keep talking about building buildings, repairing buildings,” the usually low-key former school principal shouted at the few Democrats who were standing across the aisle from him. “Put your money where your mandate was.”

Mr. Goodling’s sentiments reflect a surprisingly prominent view among his fellow Republicans, who have made increasing federal aid for special education one of their main educational objectives for the past three years.

Despite the GOP’s reputation for seeking to rein in domestic spending, some Republicans in Congress plan to bank on special education dollars to raise their education profiles in this year’s midterm-election campaigns. Among other things, they hope to undo lingering perceptions from the party’s unpopular call for eliminating the Department of Education after the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995.

They’re not talking about nominal increases, either. For instance, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., has proposed boosting funding for IDEA state grants by $9.3 billion over six years, from fiscal 1998’s appropriation of $4.5 billion.

And education groups--even those that usually side with the Democrats--couldn’t be happier.

“We definitely support a significant increase in funding for IDEA, and we are pleased that Republicans have been out front on this issue,” said Joel Packer, a budget lobbyist for the 2.3-million-member National Education Association.

Ideological Divide

Mr. Goodling called an Education and the Workforce Committee hearing last week to discuss federal education spending, and members from both parties readily agreed that more money should be spent on special education. “I don’t think you’re alone, or ever have been alone, in wanting to increase the funding,” said Rep. Matthew G. Martinez, D-Calif.

But the philosophical reasons for the two parties’ stances differ sharply. And that divergence creates differences over how to pay for the IDEA, the extraordinarily complex and litigation-provoking law that broke ground in 1975 when it guaranteed disabled students a free, appropriate public education.

With special education costs and enrollments rising, most Republicans see the law primarily as a major unfunded federal mandate--a traditional sticking point for the GOP. Democrats and disability-rights advocates, on the other hand, fiercely defend the law as, first and foremost, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation.

B. Joseph Ballard, an assistant executive director with the Reston, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children, said his group has consistently supported more funding for state grants, as well as disability research. But he noted that states are not required to accept IDEA funding and its related federal mandates. Courts, however, have held that schools must educate students with disabilities.

“We support this [federal-state] financial partnership, but not because we would describe it as an unfunded mandate,” said Mr. Ballard, an influential CEC lobbyist who helped draft the original IDEA in the 1970s. “IDEA was originally formulated onto a constitutional responsibility to provide an education for all.”

Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., who wrote a resolution to support increased IDEA funding, disputes the view that the law imposes no unfunded requirement. ''Special education and the federal government’s failure to live up to its share has to be the mother of all unfunded mandates in this country,” he testified at last week’s hearing.

Much of the debate centers on the formula the law’s original drafters devised. Relying on the Title I formula to estimate districts’ additional expenses for special education students, the drafters planned for the federal government to pay 40 percent of those excess costs, based on the national average for per-pupil expenditures. The law was later amended to say that the federal government must pay a “maximum” of 40 percent of per-pupil costs. There is still disagreement today on interpreting the 40 percent language. The federal government, however, has never provided more than 10 percent of the per-pupil expenditure for special education students.

Bipartisan Backing

The IDEA, unlike many other federal education programs, has traditionally received bipartisan support, noted John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based think tank, and who previously served as an aide to House Democrats. He pointed out that, so far, no Republican has pushed strongly for IDEA funding to be distributed through block grants, something the party has attempted with nearly every other federal education program.

Well-organized disability-rights groups and parents of special education children have strongly influenced the GOP position, according to Mr. Jennings. “Republicans turn weak-kneed when it comes to parents and activists in their own school districts,” he charged.

Still, the program has its critics. In a 1995 guide to new members of Congress, the conservative Heritage Foundation called for repeal of the law, saying it “creates legal nightmares and provides few educational benefits.”

Demanding increases in special education funds isn’t as “sexy” a campaign issue as President Clinton’s calls for school construction, reducing class size, and hiring more teachers, Rep. Goodling has said. But, in his view, if IDEA grants were beefed up, it would free up more state and district dollars for initiatives such as the ones the president has pushed--efforts that the GOP argues should be local, not federal, responsibilities.

Republicans and educators alike were infuriated at Mr. Clinton’s budget request for fiscal 1999, which called for an increase of only 0.5 percent in state IDEA grants, from $4.53 billion to $4.55 billion. The same budget request called for big-ticket new federal initiatives in areas such as school construction and class-size reduction. (“GOP Upset Over Possibility Of Minimal Spec. Ed. Raise,” Feb. 4, 1998.)

Two superintendents who testified at last week’s hearing, Eric J. Smith of Charlotte, N.C., and Jack Van Newkirk of York, Pa., in Mr. Goodling’s congressional district, said that special education costs were cutting into the services they could offer their nondisabled students.

Mr. Smith said that his district received only $539 from the federal government to help defray the costs of educating a paralyzed kindergartner, whose school services will cost upwards of $40,000 this year.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 1998 edition of Education Week as GOP Puts Priority on Raising IDEA Funding

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