Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, said today that he will be pouring new energy into a perennial priority: Bolstering funding for special education.
Education advocates, Congress, and the administration, need to put special education funding first, Kline said in an interview. "It's easy for people to say we need to fund special education and then get distracted by many, many different things," Kline said. "We oughta be meeting the federal government's commitment to funding special education and that oughta be the first priority."
Last week, Kline held a roundtable in his district on special education. Participants included a veteran special education teacher; special education parent; school superintendent; Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers; and Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the NEA.
This isn't a new issue for Kline, who has criticized President Barack Obama in the past for neglecting to increase formula grants—such as special education funding—while boosting competitive grants, such as Race to the Top. And earlier this year, Kline was one of more than 130 lawmakers to sign onto a letter asking President Barack Obama to boost funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in his most recent budget request. (The administration ultimately asked for level funding.)
The federal government was initially supposed to pick up 40 percent of the excess cost of educating students with disabilities, but has continually fallen short of that goal.
House Democrats—lead by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Budget committee, have been trying to get mandatory funding for IDEA for years. Van Hollen and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers just recently re-introduced a bill that would make full funding for the program essentially automatic (like social security and Medicare).
Although Kline supports increased special education spending, he's not sure making the program mandatory is the way to go, particularly as lawmakers are working to rein in spending.
"I think we're going to push to put less money into the automatic pilot mandatory mode," he said. "I'm resistant to that. We already have too much in the entitlement pile."
Kline may be the chairman of the education committee, but he doesn't have a huge amount of control over the purse strings for K-12 spending. That's largely the purview of the House Appropriations Committee, which sets spending levels. Kline said he'd like to use his position to champion special education spending by reaching out to colleagues and the administration on the issue.
Ideally, he'd like to the federal government to meet its 40 percent commitment sometime in the next three to five years. "I think we can set it on path," Kline said. "That will be a good debate to have."
The natural forum for that discussion would be the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the law that governs special education. It was last renewed in 2004. But it would be hard to tackle IDEA by the end of the year, Kline said.
For her part, Kusler had high praise for Kline's commitment to the issue."Clearly, the chairman has been a leader on special education issues," she said in an interview. "You spend just five minutes with him, or you sit through a committee hearing with him and you can see his passion on that issue shine through. It's even more critical now that we're are talking about an issue with few resources."
Some political background: It's worth nothing that Kline—who has made it clear he'd like to remain as chairman of the education committee in the next Congress—has a potentially tough re-election bid in his suburban Minnesota swing district. President Barack Obama took the district by less than 300 votes in 2012, but Kline won a fairly decisive victory of 54 to 46 percent over his Democrat opponent, Mike Obermueller, who is challenging him again this time around.
Still, Kline has been a target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who has hit him for his support of for-profit colleges. And the Union Advocate, the official publication of the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, ran an article last year hitting Kline on the impact of federal across-the-board cuts on special education. (The cuts, which were put forth by Republicans and Democrats to force a budget compromise, have since been partially reversed.)
Education Minnesota didn't endorse Kline in 2012. But the union, an affiliate of both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, didn't offer support to Obermueller, either.