By Amanda Litvinov
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Forty years ago, federal lawmakers, with the support of advocacy and family groups, revolutionized how public schools educate special needs kids by passing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Before IDEA, U.S. schools educated only one of every five children with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some states had laws that specifically denied education to children who had developmental disabilities or were deaf, blind, or emotionally disturbed. Many of those children would be institutionalized and have no opportunity to be educated.
Since then, the majority of children with disabilities have been educated in their neighborhood public schools in the general classroom. Their high school graduation rates, college enrollments, and job opportunities increased dramatically. Today, 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, according to the most current data of the National Center for Education Statistics—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.
Although Congress committed to paying 40 percent of the average cost to educate a child with disabilities, it has never met even half of that commitment. Currently, the federal share of funding for special education services to approximately 6.9 million students is about 16 percent.
Each year, the remaining 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).
Sadly, the 10 states shorted the most in special education funding by the federal government this year are also states that invested less overall per pupil in 2014 than in 2008.
“Many of our paraprofessional positions were eliminated or reduced to part-time, resulting in less one-on-one time with students,” said Cathleen Fischer, an elementary teacher in Palmdale, Calif., one of the states that has experienced the double whammy of lagging state school spending and inadequate federal special education funding.
“Our students need adaptive physical education, speech and language services, and occupational therapy, but staff cannot possibly meet the demand. The result is that students only receive services intermittently and their progress is delayed.”
“Full federal funding of IDEA would make a difference,” Fischer told EducationVotes. “Don’t we all want help them to become the productive citizens this country needs and part of the future workforce?”
Some members of Congress are working to fix the problem.
In January, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) reintroduced the IDEA Full Funding Act on behalf of a bipartisan group of legislators: Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), David McKinley (R-W.V.), Tim Walz (D-Minn.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.). The bill proposes regular increases in IDEA spending that would result in full funding by 2025.
“Four decades is far too long for states and schools to wait for the help that was promised them when Congress enacted IDEA,” says NEA Government Relations Director Mary Kusler. “We strongly support the bipartisan effort to meet the noble goal of fully funding IDEA.”