Last spring, when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont emerged from a low-profile career to claim a pivotal role in American politics, he cited Republican resistance to a huge increase in special education funding as a major reason he bolted the GOP. By becoming a political Independent and handing control of the Senate to Democrats, Mr. Jeffords reasoned that he might succeed in a move to inject billions of additional dollars annually into special education.
It didn’t work out that way.
In December, when Congress completed a deal on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and then in short order passed a budget for fiscal 2002, Mr. Jeffords’ plan to put special education funding into the “mandatory” side of the budget ended up on the cutting-room floor.
The proposal figures to resurface this year as Congress takes up reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law governing special education, and could even pass in some form. Or maybe not, given the Bush administration’s opposition to the concept.
In the meantime, Mr. Jeffords has again been in the spotlight with his against-the-tide nay vote on the final ESEA package and the publication of My Declaration of Independence, his book detailing his departure from the Republican ranks last May.
He maintains that he has no regrets about leaving the party—a decision that cost him the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. (The newly ascendant Democrats did make him the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and he remains a member of the education panel.)
In fact, the 67-year-old, third-term senator says that the decision has strengthened his will, and that he plans to be more outspoken in representing his independent-minded state.
Specifically, Sen. Jeffords plans to keep pushing the issue of making special education funding a mandatory obligation for Congress. That status would require appropriators to allot a predetermined amount each year, rather than decide from year to year.
Congress in December agreed to spend $7.53 billion on special education in fiscal 2002, a $1.2 billion increase over fiscal 2001. Mr. Jeffords’ proposal would have instead increased federal special education funding by $2.5 billion this year and by $15 billion by fiscal 2006. “The goals of the overall proposal are well-intended,” he said shortly before the conference committee passed the ESEA bill in mid-December. “However, I fear that they will not come to pass unless there is a significant infusion of funds.”
The final appropriations bill increased the Department of Education’s budget by $6.7 billion for fiscal 2001, the largest increase ever in federal education spending.
The special education funding issue has divided members of both parties. Nearly every member of Congress believes in more funding for the IDEA, and that it remains an unfunded mandate to states and local districts.
But most Republicans, who initially led the fight for more funding in the past few sessions of Congress, argue the 26-year-old law has problems to be resolved before plowing additional billions into it. And mandating funding levels, they say, could cause serious strains on what is once again an out-of-balance federal budget.
Others, including most Democrats, argue that Congress must be forced to live up to what they say is a federal obligation.
Meanwhile, one prominent Democrat charged that Republicans shot down the mandatory-funding proposal in retaliation for Mr. Jeffords’ scenery-changing exodus from the GOP.
“What I have heard is that the White House is willing to shortchange special education students because Jeffords left the Republican party,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in an interview after the conference committee approved the ESEA compromise. “Special education is Jeffords’ number-one issue.”
“That’s an absolute joke,” responded David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “For nearly a quarter-century, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and never moved to increase the federal government’s share of special education.”
Sen. Jeffords’ office had no comment on Mr. Harkin’s remarks.
Staff Writer Lisa Fine contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Jeffords’ Defection Fails to Yield Special Education Windfall