Members of Congress spent a good deal of time earlier this month designing a cap that, depending on who’s looking at it, may not be in fashion for years.
The cap, in this case, is a proposed ceiling on the percentage of special education children that the federal government would count when determining how much money to give to states. The passage of that cap by the House Education and the Workforce Committee on April 10 stirred up various education advocates because, if it were to survive the legislative process, the cap seemingly would cut federal funding for at least two states immediately and others shortly thereafter.
But maybe not.
Staff members for Republican lawmakers on the House education committee contend that the cap would not be triggered until the federal government reached the almost certainly distant goal of providing “full funding” to states for special education. However, many education lobbyists and experts do not read the language in the proposed overhaul of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that way at all.
The resolution of this linguistic dispute—legislation is written in an English dialect that even aficionados can have trouble translating—could mean millions of dollars in lost special education funding.
“The way it is worded, it looks like a separate and distinct limit not tied to anything,” said Reggie Felton, the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association. “Frankly, I hope they leave the language as confusing as it is so it will not be enforced.”
The overall IDEA bill, as passed by the House education committee, includes a provision that would allow states to collect federal special education funding based on no more than 13.5 percent of their total student populations statewide. If a higher percentage were enrolled in a state’s program, the money would have to be stretched to cover all of those students. (“House Panel OKs IDEA, Sans Locked-In Funding,” April 16, 2003.)
A cap of 12 percent was originally proposed by Republicans on the committee. But Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., after attempting to kill the cap altogether, settled for inching it up a bit.
“I don’t think there should be a cap,” Mr. Andrews said. “I think it is artificially based on the idea that schools artificially process special education students. It’s a painful process.”
After the panel passed the bill, the National Education Association’s federal-policy experts posted a legislative update April 11 on the union’s Web site telling members they hoped to kill the cap because it would immediately affect West Virginia and Rhode Island, which already have at least 13.5 percent of their student populations in special education.
But early last week, David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House education committee, tried to clear up what he said was a misunderstanding. The cap, he said, would not be triggered until special education achieved “full federal funding,” or aid equal to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil spending on education. States now receive about 18 percent.
The Republicans on the House education committee have included in their IDEA reauthorization measure a plan to reach 40 percent funding in seven years. So the cap, at best, wouldn’t be triggered until then, Mr. Schnittger said.
But several policy experts who read the language in the bill disagreed with that interpretation.
“I read through the amendment and the full-text substitute and could not find any condition on the percentage cap,” said Jack Jennings, a lawyer who was an aide to House Democrats from 1967 to 1994 and is now the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank. “So, I presume that the cap is not dependent on full funding.”
However, Mr. Jennings said Republicans can make changes before final passage of the bill to reflect their intention.
Referring to the language concerning the cap, Thomas Parrish, the director of the Center for Special Education Finance, based in Palo Alto, Calif., said: “It’s vague at best.”
“It’s unclear how the ceiling would be applied,” continued Mr. Parrish, who has conducted numerous national studies on special education spending for the Department of Education.
Mr. Schnittger insists that the committee has simply reintroduced the same cap that was in the IDEA until 1997. At that time, it was 12 percent.
“It’s not a new proposal,” he said.
But lobbyists and a spokesman for the research arm of Congress said the new cap would indeed be different. The original cap was not tied to full funding, they said.
The distinction occurs because in 1997, special education funding moved away from a system based on the number of special education students in a state and was replaced by a Census-based system taking into account overall school-age populations and poverty levels, said Richard Apling, a specialist in social legislation for the Congressional Research Service.
After reviewing the proposed cap, Mr. Apling said it would be triggered only when the federal subsidy reached 40 percent because, by his reading, the funding formula would stay Census-based until that point. However, the section of the proposed legislation containing the cap makes no mention of the Census-based funding formula.