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Special Education Funding Gets Moment in Spotlight at Democratic Debate


An issue that's hugely important to the country's schools—but rarely mentioned by presidential candidates—got a brief moment in the spotlight at Thursday's Democratic presidential debate when Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren promised she would fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

That pledge is included in Warren's education plan, and several of her competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination have also made the same promise. They include New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and former Secretary of Housing and Human Services Julián Castro. (Of those three, only Klobuchar was on stage for Thursday's debate.)

Special education came up in the debate, held at Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles, after moderators asked candidates about how they would help adults with disabilities secure and keep jobs.

Businessman Andrew Yang mentioned his own son, who has autism. "Special needs children are going to become special needs adults," he said.

Warren said meeting the needs of people with disabilities starts in childhood, adding that she wants "to fully fund IDEA so that every child with disabilities would get the education that they need." She mentioned the year she worked as a special education teacher early in her career, which has been a big talking point for her campaign.

What does it mean to fully fund IDEA?

When IDEA—the federal law that details schools' obligations to students with disabilities—was passed in 1975, Congress gave itself permission to send to states up to 40 percent of the "average per pupil expenditure" to meet the goals of the law. But, in reality, spending falls far short of that. The federal contribution to special education is now about $13 billion, around 15 percent. 

Most Democratic presidential candidates have said, in speeches or in their education plans, that they would "fully fund IDEA," raising federal funding levels to those allowed under the law. Warren's plan would add an additional $20 billion a year to IDEA grants and expand the program to cover more services for 3-5 year olds. 

On the campaign trail, funding for IDEA has gotten much less attention than pushes to boost Title I funding, which is targeted toward schools with large enrollments of students from low-income families. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Booker, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Vice President Joe Biden have all pledged to triple that funding. Warren wants to quadruple it.

But providing more federal funding for special education would help all students, advocates for local school districts and administrators say. Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, The School Superintendent's Association, tweeted when IDEA came up in the debate Thursday.

"We're not even at 15% right now, so less than half of their commitment," she wrote. "As a former special education teacher, this chronic underfunding guts me. Special education students are general education students first. Fully funding IDEA frees up hundred of millions of state and local dollars (Currently covering the federal shortfall), freeing them up for the general education budgets they were intended to support."

Check out Education Week's interactive tracker to learn more about what 2020 presidential candidates think about key education issues.

Photo: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in 2018. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

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