Who Will Pay?

Published April 1, 1999

Two U.S. Supreme Court justices dissented from the high court’s March 3 ruling that school districts must pay for the continuous, one-on-one nursing care some disabled students require to go to school.

Joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that Congress passed the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “to increase the educational opportunities available to disabled children, not to provide medical care for them.” The court’s decision concerning a disabled Iowa teenager, the justices argued, “blindsides unwary states with fiscal obligations that they could not have anticipated.”

The IDEA law already was onerous for states and local school districts. Congress passed the law as an under-funded mandate, ordering schools to accommodate disabled children but providing little of the funding necessary to do so. While willing to pass a law guaranteeing special education students a “free, appropriate” education in the “least restrictive environment,” Congress has proved much less willing to levy the taxes necessary to fund such an education. Only about 12 percent of the nation’s special education costs are paid by the federal government.

In some communities, the number is even less. In Chicago, for example, the federal government’s contribution drops to 8 percent, and in the city’s suburbs it’s only 4 percent, according to Gary Lieder, legislative chairman of the Illinois Administrators of Special Education. With the state picking up only 20 to 30 percent of special education costs, most of the taxes to pay for Congress’s IDEA law fall on the backs of local property taxpayers.

“Unless Congress acts to provide adequate funding, it is inconceivable that districts can shoulder the additional cost of providing the care necessary to allow seriously disabled students to attend public schools,” American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman told the Chicago Tribune.