Special Education

IDEA Funding Plan Draws Fire In Washington and Beyond

By Lisa Fine — May 16, 2001 7 min read
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A Senate measure that would require pouring additional billions of federal dollars into special education over the next 10 years continued to be welcomed in some quarters last week, but drew sharp criticism from the Bush administration, along with some special education advocates, educators, and lawmakers.

To mandate such a massive increase in funding without first re-examining how the nation educates students with disabilities would only perpetuate problems in the existing system, some critics of the plan said. Among the problems they cited were a lack of financing for efforts to ensure a supply of well-qualified teachers and to reach students with disabilities at a younger age, shortcomings that were seen as leading some students to be referred to special education unnecessarily.

A statement issued by the White House last week put the administration on the record as “strongly” opposing the amendment, which it called “costly and unwarranted.”

“The administration recognizes the challenges faced by states and localities in carrying out their responsibility to educate children with disabilities,” the May 8 policy statement said. “But the amendment would undermine fiscal discipline by removing the program from the appropriations process and increasing federal spending for special education far in excess of the president’s budget over the next 10 years, with no attention to improving educational results for these children.”

The Senate measure, which passed May 3 on a voice vote after Republicans leaders concluded they lacked the votes to defeat it, would amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to guarantee an increase in funding for the program and move it from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the budget, thereby shielding it from the vagaries of the yearly appropriations process. (“Senate Backs ‘Full Funding’ of Special Ed.,” May 9, 2001.)

Chuck Hagel

The bipartisan amendment was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and James M. Jeffords of Vermont. Proposed during the ongoing effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the amendment seeks to “fully fund” the IDEA within six years.

“Full funding” of the act is often referred to as providing states with per-pupil federal aid for students with disabilities that is equivalent to 40 percent of the average per-student cost. The amendment calls for reaching that 40 percent level within six years, thereby fulfilling what many advocates for such students believe was a promise made by Congress when it first passed the IDEA in 1975. (“Plans Floated To Guarantee Spec. Ed. Aid,” April 25, 2001.)

The measure is expected to face significant hurdles in the House.

“We don’t normally comment directly on pending matters in the Senate,” said Dave Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House education committee. “But suffice it to say we do not plan to include a similar amendment.”

The proposal would boost IDEA funding by some $2.5 billion a year over the next six years, which far exceeds the increase in special education spending proposed by President Bush, who wants a $1 billion increase in IDEA grants to states for 2002.

Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said Mr. Bush and Mr. Paige did not want to discuss the idea of mandatory “full funding” until the congressional debate over next year’s scheduled reauthorization of the IDEA gets under way.

Setting the Stage

Even though it is unlikely to be signed into law, the Senate amendment has revved up momentum in Congress and within the special education community as lawmakers head toward the IDEA reauthorization process. Political observers say the measure has helped set the stage for how the debate will unfold.

The measure would raise spending to $21 billion—the 40 percent funding level—by 2007, Sen. Harkin said in a statement released when he proposed the amendment. The state-grants program within the IDEA stands at $6.34 billion in the current fiscal year—about 15 percent of the full-funding level.

“This is a win-win-win amendment,” he argued. “With [these] advance appropriations, students with disabilities will get the public education they have a right to, school districts will be able to provide these services without cutting into their general education budgets, and in cases where all IDEA-eligible kids are getting the services they are entitled to, property-tax payers will get relief.”

But even advocates for special education didn’t see the amendment’s passage as a clear win. For years, special educators have been used to policies with not enough money to pay for them. Now they are faced with the prospect of a windfall with no public debate on how best to use it, and some people in the field said that situation puts them in a difficult position.

“We are certainly very excited about the passage of the bill,” said Deborah A. Ziegler, a lobbyist for the Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Va. “But we have been steadfast in believing in not posing amendments to IDEA outside of the reauthorization process, which gives a bigger conception of the law. In this case, the decisions have major policy implications [and] were formed not with consensus from the community.”

Reactions to the amendment varied from state to state, where special education directors are dealing with the daily challenges of running programs. Some directors said they thought more money would not necessarily be a magic bullet.

In the president’s home state of Texas, the special education director said it was dangerous to dump billions more dollars into programs without changing the culture of special education that has existed for a quarter-century.

“States and local districts have carried the burden for so long,” said Eugene Lenz, the state special education director for Texas. “The key isn’t more money, but how it would be implemented. Just putting in more money would pay for process compliance and not results for kids.”

Mr. Lenz said he would favor an increase in funding for early-childhood programs in reading and mathematics for students in general education, in an effort to prevent students from being placed in special education in the first place.

Meanwhile, Doug Cox, the special education director in Virginia, said the money would be put to good use even without a broader review of the IDEA.

“There are always needs,” he said. “This would be a great thing. It would free up money in the states to be used for other things.”

Views also differ over how the money could be used under the amendment. One issue is whether it would be better to allow schools to use the federal windfall to supplement money already being used for special education, or to supplant state and local special education funding, thus freeing up that money for other purposes.

When the IDEA originally became law, a provision prohibited the federal aid from taking the place of existing special education spending, so schools wouldn’t reduce their own contributions once the new money arrived from Washington. But during the last reauthorization, in 1997, the law was changed to allow 20 percent of new federal funding to be used for other purposes.

The Senate amendment stipulates that states could use 55 percent of the increased funding for purposes other than special education. And, if a local school district could demonstrate to the state that it was serving all eligible children and providing them with the services they were entitled to under the IDEA, the district would be able to use up to 100 percent of the money for other purposes.

Some advocates said that without strict rules requiring schools to use the bulk of the money for special education, schools would divert the money to other needs.

But Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, said there should be no concern over how schools would use the money. “There are very few districts that could meet the requirement of serving all of their students with special needs,” he said. “It’s not like they would use the money to build roads. They’re schools. They would use it to hire more teachers or a reading specialist.”

Others said they were concerned that special education would be saturated with funding, encouraging more placements of students into special education.

Thomas B. Parrish, the director of the Center for Special Education Finance, based in Palo Alto, Calif., said that with too much money in special education and not enough in general education, special education would become a dumping ground for students with any kind of learning difficulties, because it would be the place with the most ample resources.

“There has to be some supplanting allowed because the problem in special education is increasing enrollment,” Mr. Parrish said. “We know we can serve kids with learning difficulties outside of special education.”

Mr. Parrish predicted that an influx of funding such as that offered by the amendment, combined with standards-based accountability policies in states, would serve to push more students into special education.

“The more we raise the bar, the fewer kids are going to get over the bar,” he said.

For that reason, he suggested that advocates should aim to bridge the divide between regular and special education.

Special education, he said, “should be the program of last resort.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as IDEA Funding Plan Draws Fire In Washington and Beyond

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