By Amanda Litvinov
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Before the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, U.S. schools educated only one of every five children with disabilities. Some states even had laws that specifically denied education to children who had physical or developmental disabilities.
Today, the majority of children with disabilities are educated in their neighborhood public 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.
A bipartisan bill introduced last week would put an end to the chronic underfunding, and over time fulfill the pledge Congress made to cover 40% of the average cost to educate children with disabilities. In the 40 years since the passage of IDEA, the federal government has never met even half of that commitment.
“Politicians love to say in campaigns and speeches that ‘children are our future,’” said Sarah Lambert, a special education teacher in Illinois. “But if we are depriving so many kids of the full range of services and one-on-one time with educators they need to fulfill their full potential, what does that say for our country’s future?”
Currently, the federal share of funding for special education services to approximately 6.9 million students is at about 16 percent. As a result, costs are shifted to the states, forcing school districts to either raise taxes or dip into general education budgets and cut other critical services to make up for the shortfall.
The federal cost shift to states in 2014 alone was $17.6 billion (based on data from the U.S. Department of Education Budget Service and the Congressional Research Service).
In January, the IDEA Full Funding Act was reintroduced by Reps. Jared Huffman (D-CA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), David McKinley (R-WV), Tim Walz (D-MN), Chris Gibson (R-NY), and Dave Reichert (R-WA). The bill proposes regular increases in IDEA spending that would result in full funding by 2025.
The federal government contributing its full share would be “a huge step forward for our entire education system,” said Michele Proctor, who teaches special needs middle-schoolers in Maryland.
“It would give us the best possibility to get the right placements, the right services, smaller classes, and more one-on-one time,” Proctor said. “And we know those are the things that make a difference for our kids.”
“Four decades is far too long for states and local schools to wait for the funding that was promised them when Congress enacted IDEA,” says NEA federal advocacy director Mary Kusler. “We strongly support the bipartisan effort to meet the noble goal of fully funding IDEA.”
Tell Congress it’s time to pass the bipartisan IDEA Full Funding Act. Send an email today!