U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, wants to see a big increase for federal special education funding, to the tune of $1.5 billion, in the next spending bill for the U.S. Department of Education. That would bring aid for special education to $13 billion, and the federal share of such spending up to 18 percent of the excess cost of educating a child with disabilities.
The feds originally pledged to pony up 40 percent of that funding when Congress first approved what is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act back in the 1970s. But they've never come close to that threshold, and right now it's about 16 percent. On Tuesday, Kline sent a letter asking for the increase to lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee. He was joined by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., who oversess the House education subcommittee that deals with K-12 policy, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who has a son with special needs.
"Although our requested increase still falls short of the federal government's commitment to special-needs children, such a meaningful increase would generate significant new funding for all states and districts, giving policymakers and educators more freedom to use state and local funds to strengthen general and special education in their communities," the lawmakers wrote.
Notably, the letter doesn't propose where in the Education Department to cut to make room for such a major increase. A recent budget agreement would largely hold domestic-spending levels steady far into next year, so a boost for special education would likely mean cuts elsewhere. Presumably, the Obama administration's competitive grants, such as Race to the Top, would be tempting targets for the GOP. This is a long-standing issue; see more here.
And Kline's championship of special education funding also isn't new. The key difference this time is that he's publicly named a dollar figure. It's worth noting that special education funding has been a key issue in Kline's suburban Minnesota district, where voters narrowly supported President Barack Obama in 2012. Kline hung onto his seat, but it is a Democratic target this year. More here.
The letter came just a few hours after Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified before Kline's committee. During the hearing, the two had a somewhat testy exchange on special education funding and the Ryan budget, which would dramatically restrain domestic discretionary spending, the category that includes education. (This isn't a new line from Duncan on the Ryan budget.)
There isn't any language in the budget plan authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, D-Wis., specifically taking aim at special education, but Democrats assume the program would take a big hit. Kline argued during the hearing that special education could still be prioritized. But the top Democrat on the education committee, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., argued that means that if the Ryan budget were actually enacted, there would likely have to be deep cuts in other domestic programs in order to increase, or even just protect, aid for special education.
"The question always was, if you increase special ed, you had to savage another program to do it," Miller said. "The record isn't great on special ed, other than all of the rhetoric from elected officials about [how] they support it; that's the record on special ed." Watch the full hearing here.