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Special Education Opinion

The Politics of IDEA Funding

By Andrew J. Rotherham — October 09, 2002 9 min read
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The convoluted politics of special education funding do not benefit the students the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is supposed to help.

Despite all the attention being paid to Iraq, the fight against terrorism, and the economy, a must-do item that remains on the congressional agenda in Washington is passage of spending bills to fund the federal government for the coming year. Not surprisingly, education spending will again cause partisan contention, especially when it comes to special education. A bruising fight is likely with, for the most part, Democrats demanding “full funding” for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Republicans and the Bush administration resisting. However, the IDEA itself is also in the process of being reauthorized, giving policymakers a chance to end this stalemate and seize the opportunity to increase IDEA funding while funding the law differently and smarter than we do now.

The politics of special education funding are bizarre. Only a few years ago, it was Republicans demanding that the federal government make IDEA funding paramount, and Democrats arguing the other way. During the mid- to late-1990s, almost every time President Clinton proposed a new education initiative, Republicans responded with calls to instead fund IDEA first. Democrats were often bewildered when local educators were sympathetic to the Republican position. How, they wondered, could anyone prefer IDEA funding to initiatives for smaller classes, after-school programs, or school construction?

Of course, from the point of view of superintendents and principals, the chronic underfunding of special education was part of the cause for shortfalls in these other areas. Local educators care little whether Republicans or Democrats are championing IDEA funding when they’re struggling to make ends meet in their budgets. During the late 1990s, Republicans astutely picked up on this demand and made it part of their agenda on education.

However, as recent events show, some Republicans were probably motivated less by the policy problems of IDEA finance than a desire to champion some education spending plan as an alternative to the Clinton agenda. As Democrats began to rally around IDEA funding during debate about the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, and the possibility of substantial funding boosts grew, Republicans began arguing that other reforms should take precedence instead.

This turnabout had two causes. As a policy issue, the primary proposal before lawmakers to “fully fund” the IDEA would have made funding a mandatory spending item, rather than subject to annual appropriations. This means that, instead of deciding budget priorities each year, the spending amounts would be fixed. While superficially attractive, this approach is ill-conceived and could wreak havoc on an already strained federal budget. For this reason, even some Democrats sympathetic to increased education spending, like Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, opposed it.

The attacks ofSept. 11, 2001, did complicate matters, but the fiscal outlook for nondefense domestic programs was not rosy on Sept. 10, 2001, either.

As a political matter, there was not much money in the wake of President Bush’s tax cut for almost any domestic program. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, certainly complicated matters, but the overall fiscal outlook for nondefense domestic programs in the federal budget was not rosy on Sept. 10, 2001, either. By arguing against large spending increases beyond the No Child Left Behind deal, Republicans were protecting the president from an awkward political situation. After all, although Sen. James M. Jeffords voted in the end for the tax cut, part of the Vermont Republican’s cri de coeur when he switched to the Independent label and lined up with the Democrats was a call for more spending on special education.

So now, instead of new funding, Republicans argue that special education needs reform. They’ve reversed themselves on their Clinton-era stance of pitting special education funding against proposed new initiatives by arguing that President Bush’s Reading First program will reduce the demand for special education dollars. This is partially right, and more recent research supports their claim. Moreover, the IDEA does need more than just a few nips and tucks in the way of reform, and better preventive measures are essential.

But reform will not obviate the need for additional resources. Last year, Chester E. Finn Jr., Charles Hokanson, and I published Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, an ideologically diverse volume of papers and essays about special education. Although we did not specify a dollar amount, we concluded that while many aspects of special education are in dire need of reform, a reformed IDEA still must be adequately funded.

Republicans now argue that the explosion in the number of students inappropriately identified as learning-disabled is the IDEA’s primary fiscal culprit. There is plenty of evidence that in addition to those with genuine learning problems, this loosely defined category has become a catchall for students who were not taught well in the first place or are just struggling academically. But fixing this situation, while an imperative for policymakers, will not solve the funding problem. Even as students are needlessly referred to special education, others who do need help are falling through the cracks because of poor screening and intervention. And it’s worth remembering that prevention itself is costly, and that early-intervention programs are notoriously underfunded.

Moreover, high-cost medical and intensive instructional services are also straining school budgets. The explosion of students classified as learning-disabled should not obscure the high-cost services more severely disabled students need and are entitled to. More specifically, analysis about the relation of the special education caseload to rising medical costs and recent legal decisions about the responsibility of schools to provide these services is urgently needed.

Congress should now discuss not only how much more to spend, but also how to spend it more effectively.

To be sure, many Democrats are focused on IDEA spending at the expense of special education reform, but at the same time, too many Republicans are just trying to come up with rationalizations to forestall funding increases or argue for vouchers. Fortunately, because Congress is considering both IDEA funding and changes to the IDEA statute as part of the reauthorization process, the opportunity is at hand to discuss not only how much more to spend overall, but also how to spend it differently and more effectively.

There are immediate steps the president and Congress can take toward this end. First, both Democrats and Republicans must acknowledge that special education is expensive, frightfully so, and that the chronic underfunding adversely affects school district budgets. But, if we’re serious about “leaving no child behind,” it’s time to ante up and meet that challenge by providing the necessary resources for the IDEA. That does not mean Congress must create a new budget-busting entitlement, but it’s wishful thinking to try to improve special education without increasing spending.

However, despite demonstrated need for more spending, it’s also time for an honest recognition that no one knows exactly how much is necessary. While President Bush’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education did a lot of valuable work overall and examined the finance issue in particular, it skirted the question of just how much money is required. Considering the recent history and politics of IDEA funding, it’s hard to see this omission as anything other than an administration-sanctioned attempt to duck the issue. That’s unfortunate. Contrary to much of the rhetoric, God did not hand down the oft- cited 40 percent federal-funding target for the IDEA. It’s not sacred, but based on a generation-old political compromise; and, because of the peculiarities of state and local school finance, it may in fact be too little for Washington to contribute or, conversely, more than is required.

To find out, the president and Congress should establish another bipartisan commission or task force specifically to look at special education finance. That commission should be made up of local, state, and national educators, policy analysts, and school finance experts and charged with figuring out, not what we are spending now but rather how much local districts and states can and should pay toward special education and how much the federal government must contribute. Such a commission might also make recommendations to help resolve ancillary funding disputes—for example, about Medicaid—so that school officials have a clear understanding of what revenue is available to fund special education and medical costs. It could also consider preventive costs and other strategies so that policymakers can more comprehensively consider special education funding.

Realistically, reauthorization will not be finished until at least 2003, so there is still time for such a commission. We know a lot more about special education finance now than a quarter-century ago, when the IDEA was first passed. And we should use this information to inform policy.

But even when there is consensus about how much to spend, the money should not be allocated exactly as it is now. It is important to maintain federal formulas that are neutral with regard to identification, to neither encourage nor discourage special education identification. But high- cost students, particularly in small and rural districts, can cause fiscal strains that cannot be adequately addressed through national formulas. Several states have programs to help address this problem, but national action will be more efficacious, and a new funding mechanism should be incorporated during the IDEA reauthorization. In Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, we recommended that, on an individualized basis, the federal government pick up the full cost of education for these students. While education is primarily a state and local function, this is a small subset of students with clear rights in federal law who could be helped by a new way of funding the IDEA. At the same time, such a strategy would help alleviate budget problems in smaller communities.

Just as special education students should be integrated into the life of their schools, policymakers must not take a myopic view of IDEA funding.

Finally, just as special education students should be integrated into the life of their schools, policymakers must not take a myopic view of IDEA funding. Funding for the IDEA’s smaller program for infants and toddlers as well as the pre-K program should be considered in tandem with the primary IDEA funding stream. It’s also long past time to heed the evidence showing that good prekindergarten programs reduce special education referrals and improve the haphazard approach that most states and the federal government now take toward early-childhood education.

The politicizing of IDEA funding has hindered rather than advanced a solution to the finance problem and distracted from other important reform issues in special education. Congress and the president can advance the debate by investing more in special education, but doing so based on policy instead of politics. That will require the president to lead and both parties in Congress to make concessions, but action on this issue is long overdue. The interminable special education funding fight is good for Washington partisans, but it does not benefit the students the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is supposed to help, or their peers adversely affected by current funding shortfalls.

Andrew J. Rotherham is the director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute (www.ppionline.org) and served as a special assistant to the president for domestic policy in the Clinton administration.

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