40 Percent of What?

Published June 1, 2002

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires the federal government to cover a share of special education costs. Although it is widely believed this means federal taxes should pay for 40 percent of the costs of educating a special-education student, the law actually defines Congress’s contribution as up to 40 percent of the average per-pupil cost. As the editors of Education Week recently noted:

The law says that the most a state may receive in grants under this provision is the number that results from multiplying the eligible number of children receiving special education services in a state times “40 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States.”

The National School Boards Association estimates that this year some 6.15 million children are served under IDEA this year and that the average per-pupil expenditure is $7,320. Thus, the maximum contribution Congress could have provided was:

$7,320 x 40% = $2,928 per special-education student


$2,928 x 6.15 million = $18.0 billion in total

In fiscal year 2002, Congress authorized $7.5 billion in special-education state grants, or about 41 percent of the maximum Congress could have authorized under the law. A recent study by the National Research Council showed enrollment in special education programs growing at an unprecedented pace. (See “Almost 1 in 8 Students Labeled ‘Disabled,'” School Reform News, March 2002.)