Special education funding generally transforms Congress into a church choir, singing from the same page as lawmakers put more federal money—though not as much as most educators would like—into helping students who have disabilities.
But now a discordant question has disrupted the harmony: Should federal law require Congress to automatically allot a certain amount each year?
New proposals would move the funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, now $7.11 billion, from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the education budget. That means the amount would no longer be subject to the politics of the annual appropriations process.
The notion, which failed to generate momentum in past years, enjoyed a surge early this month when the Senate unexpectedly approved an amendment from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to the annual budget resolution. The Harkin provision cleared a procedural hurdle to making special education funding mandatory.
Congress could take up the question again this week as senators and representatives try to hash out a compromise budget resolution, the five-year blueprint for federal spending. The House version does not contain any language on mandatory special education funding.
The Harkin provision is part of a drive to boost funding for IDEA state grants to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil spending for public K-12 education—a share that advocates believe was promised by federal lawmakers to help districts meet the requirements of a complicated and controversial law.
Sens. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont Republican who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Edward M. Kennedy, the panel’s ranking Democrat, are sponsoring a separate bill that would mandate IDEA funding increases of $2.5 billion a year for the next six years. Such a move, they say, would finally give the 25-year-old law the funding it authorizes.
Sen. Jeffords was a freshman member of the House when the original IDEA law passed in 1975. He said last week that the original intent of Congress was to increase the funding to its authorized level—40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure—within a few years.
That didn’t happen, however. The federal contribution languished at about 7 percent until recent years, when GOP appropriators took on the cause and began pouring money into the program. This year, IDEA grants rose to the 15 percent level—up from 12 percent in fiscal 2000.
“When we passed IDEA, there was no discussion of mandatory versus discretionary funding, there was just the assumption that the federal government would pay its appropriate share,” Sen. Jeffords said in a written statement to Education Week. “I think had we known then what we know now we would have made it mandatory.”
Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., has sponsored legislation in the past two congressional sessions that would make IDEA funding mandatory. He said at a meeting with New Jersey state legislators last week that that’s the best way to ensure districts see much-needed increases in aid.
“The only way that the federal government will ever meet its funding obligation under IDEA is by taking its funding decisions out of the yearly appropriations process and making the funding a mandatory program,” he said.
But a colleague of his, Sen. Judd Gregg, also a New Hampshire Republican, says that changing the IDEA to mandatory funding would be a “major mistake” because it could open the door for unchecked increases in other education programs.
“It’s not fiscally responsible,” Mr. Gregg said at a meeting with reporters earlier this month.
Currently, only $345 million of the total $42.4 billion Department of Education budget is mandatory—mainly in higher education programs, such as administration for the direct-student-loan program.
In the past two decades, Congress has been reluctant to make program spending mandatory because of chronic federal deficits that ended only recently.
Such a move, analysts say, would be a major shift in the education budget.
“This is something that doesn’t have a lot of precedents, especially in education programs,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of education groups that lobbies for increases in the education budget.
“It’s still going to be a tough sell,” he said of mandatory IDEA spending, “but it has a lot more support and leverage than it ever has before.”
Momentum for such a plan is growing fast, added Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the 2.6 million- member teachers’ union. “We’ve definitely picked up some significant Republican supporters—it’s really become a bipartisan effort this year,” he said.
The history of IDEA funding is exasperating for many educators.
In 1975, Congress passed the groundbreaking law, then known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, that guaranteed thousands of children with disabilities access to a “free, appropriate public education” for the first time.
The law stipulated that states could receive a maximum federal grant of 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure for public elementary and secondary schools. Lawmakers set a goal of meeting that level by 1980.
Even then, some doubted Congress would ever be able to give districts enough money to support the requirements of the law. One of the greatest skeptics was President Gerald R. Ford, who stated, as he reluctantly signed the measure into law: “Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic.”
In the quarter-century since then, special education enrollments and costs have risen dramatically: More than 6 million students are now being educated under the IDEA, up from about 3.3 million in its early years and a more than 30 percent increase just in the past 10 years.
Many lawmakers, educators, and lobbyists say they strongly believe the original intent of the law was to provide full funding of the authorized federal share.
“There’s no question in our minds that when the bill was originally negotiated, the 40 percent was not seen as some lofty goal, but as a commitment they intended to keep,” said Jordan Cross, a legislative specialist with the American Association of School Administrators.
School administrators and district officials around the country speak of their need for more special education funding. Because they are required to provide appropriate services to all students with disabilities, general education and other programs for nondisabled students are shortchanged, school leaders say. (“Schools Grapple With Reality of Ambitious Law,” Dec. 6, 2000.)
And by moving the IDEA to the federal mandatory-spending column, some administrators say, districts could better plan their budgets and spend money more wisely because they would know how much aid they were guaranteed each year.
A Tough Sell
But even with the new momentum, getting the mandatory-funding plan passed in Congress may be challenging. For one thing, it doesn’t have the support of the White House or congressional GOP leaders, including Republicans on the House and Senate budget committees, which rejected similar plans.
President Bush has instead proposed increasing IDEA state grants by $1 billion, to $8.11 billion, in fiscal 2002.
Republicans have traditionally opposed increased mandatory spending because it removes control over budget levels. Furthermore, GOP members of the House Budget Committee believe that their proposed $1.25 billion-a-year increase is a sufficient move toward a long-term goal of “full funding” of the federal share of special education costs.
“There’s no need to move it to the mandatory side,” said Brenna Hapes, a spokeswoman for the House Budget Committee, who noted that the panel’s members might choose to add more money to the proposed $1.25 billion increase later this year.
One GOP aide who asked not to be named said that the IDEA allocation would likely never decrease because special education is such a politically charged issue that lawmakers would risk a backlash from constituents.
But Sen. Jeffords and other supporters of mandatory IDEA funding maintain that under proposals such as the one backed by the Republicans on the House Budget Committee, it would take at least 20 years to achieve the 40 percent level.
In a recent report, those House members called the criticism “demagogic and hypocritical” and said that funding the full 40 percent share would cost about an additional $110 billion in the next 10 years.
Some supporters of the funding mandate argue that if the IDEA stays in the discretionary budget and receives significant increases, however, other education programs will be squeezed out of any additional funding.
“The pressure on appropriators is to put almost all their funding into IDEA,” Mr. Cross of the school administrators’ group said. “Unless we move IDEA out of discretionary and put it into mandatory, it’s going to be hard for any other discretionary programs to get a fair share.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Plans Floated To Guarantee Spec. Ed. Aid