IDEA at 40: Has Congress abandoned the promise of the special education law?

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By Amanda Litvinov

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When President Gerald Ford signed the law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 40 years ago, he was committed to the law’s goals but deeply concerned about whether the federal government would fulfill its promise to fund 40 percent of the extra costs associated with educating special needs children.

His reservations were well-founded. Four decades later, the government has never met even half of its funding obligation and lawmakers regularly introduce bills aimed at fully funding IDEA, or at least taking steps in that direction.

In January, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the IDEA Full Funding Act, which would establish regular increases in IDEA spending that would result in full funding by 2025.

Earlier this month, Congressmen Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) introduced the IDEA High Cost Pool Funding Act, to help states cover the exceptional costs sometimes associated with educating students with disabilities, including supports, resources, and one-on-one instruction for the students most in need.

The IDEA High Cost Pool Funding Act would provide additional support to states that set up “pools” to help reimburse local schools for special educational services that are three times or more the average per pupil expenditure.

As the bills sit in Congress, educators are doing everything they can to meet students’ needs with the resources they have.

“We simply cannot continue down this path of expecting grossly under-resourced schools to meet the educational goals we’ve been given,” said Phill Hurley, who teaches at a Title I school in Portland, Oregon.

“We want our students to be successful—that’s why we became educators—but we need more professionals on board to allow for the individualized attention and services that help special needs students,” said Hurley. “Everyone loses when our students do not receive the education they deserve.”

Federal IDEA funding meme
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Today, the majority of children with disabilities are educated in their neighborhood schools in the general classroom. Their high school graduation rates, college enrollment, and job opportunities increased dramatically; employment rates for youth served under IDEA are twice those of older adults with similar disabilities who did not have the benefit of IDEA.

But for all the law has accomplished for the students it serves—which is now about 13 percent of all enrolled students—the federal government’s failure to meet its funding obligation has wreaked havoc on state and local budgets and at times left districts scrambling to meet student needs.

Both of the IDEA funding bills aim to significantly ease the financial burden passed on to the states to fulfill the mandates of the special education law. But another key piece of strengthening programs and services for special needs students and protecting state education budgets is boosting education funding in the federal budget.

Lawmakers avoided a government shutdown by passing a continuing resolution that funds the government through December 11, 2015—which is now just a few weeks away.

The Appropriations Committee is now considering an omnibus spending bill, and since Congress recently raised the budget caps, now is the time to call on your elected leaders to boost allocations for education programs that help our most vulnerable students, including IDEA.

Mary Higdon, an education support professional who works with special needs students in Clarksville, Indiana, says it is “heartbreaking” that lawmakers have not found a way to significantly boost funding for the nation’s public schools even as the economy has recovered.

“Our special needs students will not get the extra help they need when their class sizes are too large, their learning tools are outdated, and support staff is cut,” said Higdon.

“It’s time for Congress to look out for our special needs students and the people who are working to help them lead full and productive lives.”

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