Mandatory full funding for special education could be closer to becoming a reality now that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was named chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Just this week, Sens. Harkin and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., reintroduced legislation to fully fund special education. Similar bills have been introduced in years past. Harkin has long been a champion for full funding, and will be in a powerful position as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"Full funding" of the act is often referred to as providing states with per-pupil federal aid for students with disabilities that is equivalent to 40 percent of the average per-student cost, which is what many advocates for such students believe was a promise made by Congress when it first passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975.
"We tell our children all the time to keep their promises, to live up to their commitments, to do as they say they are going to do," Harkin said in a statement. "It is time for the federal government to make good on its promise to students with disabilities in this country."
Thanks to the economic-stimulus bill, funding for IDEA grants to states was increased to 34 percent of the average per-student cost. But that was a one-time investment, without which IDEA grants are funded at around 17 percent of the cost of special education programs. Federal funding has never exceeded 18 percent.
“Congress made a promise to our schools and our children to share the cost of special education,” Roberts said. “It’s time that Congress relieve our state and local governments of the financial burden they have been forced to shoulder, especially in these tough economic times.”
Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators, said he was optimistic about full funding.
“This is the best opportunity for getting 40 percent we have ever had," Hunter said. “The new funding is especially important to continue the improvement of services for students with disabilities [and] take up the slack for shortfalls in state and local funding that are sure to happen over the next two to three years. I expect that Senator Harkin can put IDEA funding on the glide path to 40 percent in this Congress, maybe not this year, but surely in the coming year.”
Updated: The issue also gained momentum on the House side, with representatives Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Todd Russell Platts, R-Pa., and Tim Walz, D-Minn., introducing a bill on Sept. 15. calling for full funding. The bill would require regular increases in IDEA spending to reach full funding by FY 2015.
Reform of the IDEA funding process is long overdue, Platts said in a statement. If the federal government paid its fair share of the costs of the special education mandate to benefit special needs students, it would free up additional resources and allow school districts to address local educational needs without raising taxes, the statement said.