Congress Stiffs School Boards on Special Ed

Published June 1, 2000

At a recent National Governors’ Association meeting at the White House, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge called on President Clinton to increase his administration’s efforts to help the nation’s special-needs children. Although the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that the federal government pay up to 40 percent of the cost of programs for these children, Congress has reneged on the obligation, leaving state governments and local school boards to shoulder most of the burden.

“Help us help these children,” said the GOP governor, who has made record investments in special education funding in Pennsylvania. “We could better help these boys and girls to achieve their full potential.”

Nationwide, nearly 6 million children receive special education services and instruction at a total cost of approximately $60 billion for 1998. Of this $60 billion, the U.S. Congress provided only about $5 billion, just over 8 percent. To meet the 40 percent IDEA funding obligation would require an appropriation of $24 billion, a five-fold increase over the current funding level.

Increasing federal funding for special education also would free up state and local tax dollars, argued Ridge at the February 28 meeting. For example, Pennsylvania would receive an additional $425.8 million a year if IDEA were funded at the 40 percent level. This would free up a like amount of state and local funds, allowing parents and local school districts to decide what would best meet the educational needs and priorities of their children.

Although Clinton’s proposed special education budget for 2001 calls for an increase of only $300 million, to $6.05 billion total, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Bill Goodling (R-Pennsylvania) introduced a bill on March 22 to set a timetable for full funding of the federal government’s IDEA commitment. Goodling said his bill would “allow Congress to fulfill the commitment it made 24 years ago to children and families with special education needs.” Rep. Matthew Martinez (D-California) is an original cosponsor of the bill.

“Before we create new programs out of Washington, Congress needs to ensure that the federal government lives up to the promise it made to students, parents, and schools more than two decades ago,” said Goodling. “If we had kept our promise, school districts would have the funds necessary to build new schools, hire new teachers, reduce class size, and buy new computers.”

The Goodling-Martinez bill would authorize increases of $2 billion a year to meet the federal commitment of 40 percent by the year 2010.

It is estimated that some 75 percent of federal IDEA funds flow to local school districts. However, it’s important to note that districts would not be able to reallocate any potential savings to non-special education programs unless additional legislation also is approved. That’s because “nonsupplanting” regulations now in place require that IDEA funding may not be used to replace funds already available. Thus, each district must continue to spend at least as much on special education as it did in the prior year to get the special education funds.