Educators will not be guaranteed full federal funding for special education programs if the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee has his way.
Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, made one thing perfectly clear last week: Any attempt to move special education funding from the “discretionary” to the “mandatory” side of the federal budget, a stratagem designed to shield special education from the annual appropriations process, would be a deal breaker on the reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“We are not going to have mandatory funding in this bill—or we are not going to have a bill,” the chairman said April 9 during the committee’s markup of the version of the IDEA proposed by the Republican majority on the House panel.
“That’s not a threat. That’s a statement of fact,” Mr. Boehner said. “We can still have the debate and play on politics. But you should know that.”
And debate they did. Despite the chairman’s unambiguous comments, committee members’ clash over full funding continued for several hours April 9, and into the next day.
The committee approved the bill later on April 10 without mandatory funding on a mostly partisan, 29-19 vote.
Democrats had introduced an amendment to guarantee special education funding increases over several years until reaching what is referred to as “full funding"—or 40 percent of the national average per-student cost for all students. Many believe Congress promised that level of support for special education when the original version of the IDEA passed in 1975. Currently, the federal special education subsidy is at about 18 percent.
The amendment died 26-22, with all Republicans opposed.
But special education may yet end up receiving unprecedented increases in federal funding.
Under changes adopted to the bill, authorized IDEA spending would increase by $2.2 billion in fiscal 2004—which begins Oct. 1—bringing the federal share to 21 percent. The measure would authorize the addition of $2.5 billion in fiscal 2005, bumping federal funding to 25 percent.
Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the changes sounded good. But such figures in an authorizing bill like the IDEA are, in effect, suggestions. Actual spending levels are set in separate appropriations bill.
“The trouble we have is, you say one thing and do another,” Rep. Miller said, citing unfulfilled spending targets in the latest overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “With No Child Left Behind, funding levels have not been reached.”
The effort to revamp the nation’s main special education law, which guarantees 6.5 million students with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education, has proved highly partisan. The process comes against a backdrop of increases in the population of students identified as having disabilities.
Democrats came out strongly last week against proposed changes in student discipline rules, always an especially difficult issue in special education.
The bill as approved by the House committee would allow schools to suspend or expel students with disabilities not only for the most serious infractions such as bringing a gun to school, as current law allows, but also for violating the student code of conduct. As the bill is currently constituted, suspended or expelled students would be guaranteed educational services after 10 days out of school.
Schools are now required to investigate disciplinary incidents to determine if students’ misbehavior was due to their disabilities. The proposed changes would put the burden on parents to initiate the investigative process.
The changes in the bill would help relieve schools from having to go through a burdensome and expensive process, Republican lawmakers on the committee argued. But several Democrats on the committee said the changes would hurt students who can’t help their behavior.
An amendment that would have restored the responsibility to schools for determining whether a student’s disability caused his or her misbehavior was defeated.
Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., introduced and then withdrew an amendment offering a federal special education voucher program. He said he would bring it up again on the House floor.
His proposal would allow a portion of federal special education grants to states to be used for state school choice programs, including vouchers for private school tuition and for supplemental services.
Another amendment, adopted on a voice vote, would prohibit school personnel from requiring a child to take medication as a condition of attending school or receiving services.
The bill likely will go to the House floor next month. A Senate version of the IDEA is expected after the spring recess.