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Union Campaign Seeks More Money for Special Education, Disadvantaged Students

A national teachers' union, a Democratic U.S. senator, and others are launching a new push for Washington to spend more on students with disabilities, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, school construction, and other federal and state education programs. 

The "Fund Our Future" campaign is led by the American Federation of Teachers, and has the backing of Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. In addition to pushing for more federal spending on a variety of fronts, the AFT plans to hold Fund Our Future events in different locations around the country over the next few weeks and aims to capitalize on teacher unrest and educator activism over the last several months. 

"We are having funding fights in virtually every state capital and in Washinton, D.C.," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a Monday conference call with reporters. "The root cause of every single one of these teacher walkouts that have been roiling the country, and every single funding fight, is the lack of appropriate investments."

It's worth noting that federal school funding has increased by relatively small amounts during the first two-plus years of President Donald Trump's administration, including on Title I for disadvantaged students and special education. (Trump, however, has tried to cut the U.S. Department of Education's overall budget in his two budget proposals.) Overall school spending has been increasing recently: From fiscal 2015 to fiscal 2016, for example, nationwide school spending from federal, state, and local sources increased by 2.9 percent, our colleague Daarel Burnette II reported recently. In addition, more than 15 governors this year have signalled that they support pay raises for teachers, although higher school spending doesn't always translate into higher teacher salaries

School funding advocates have said for some time that the overall share of the nation's government spending that goes to K-12 education remains woefully inadequate, particularly after the Great Recession's significant impact on state budgets in particular. Weingarten also pointed a study showing that in fiscal 2016, 25 states had per-student funding below their pre-recession levels.  And the "Red for Ed" movement that developed alongside the wave of teacher protests and strikes over roughly the past year has crystalized for many the need for state and local lawmakers to dramatically increase spending on teachers, school infrastructure, and classroom needs. 

Separately, the Committee for Education Funding, an education funding advocacy group, is continuing its lobbying effort for the federal government to increase the share of every federal dollar that goes to schools from to 5 cents from 2 cents

Van Hollen introduced legislation late last year that would have "fully funded" both Title I and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. He said Monday that he would reintroduce that legislation. The issue is not strictly partisan; during a recent markup of a Democratic bill to provide $100 billion in federal cash for school infrastructure, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., introduced an amendment to the bill to require full funding for IDEA, which in practical terms would mean increasing federal spending to cover 40 percent of the excess costs of special education services in schools. Thompson's amendment was not agreed to. 

The senator also stressed how the structure of school funding in the U.S., in his view, ultimately leads wealthier communities to be better positioned to support public education than their poorer counterparts. "The root of the funding challenges in the United States is that we fund our schools on a property-tax basis," Van Hollen said.

The "Fund Our Future" campaign includes an effort to increase higher education spending. 

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