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Will Special Education Come Up During DeVos' Budget Testimony?

Betsy-DeVos-Johnstown-600.jpgPresident Trump's proposed budget would cut Education Department funding by about $7 billion, or 10 percent, in fiscal 2020. But for special education, the budget proposal represents business close to usual.

The proposal would keep funding flat for the major federal sources of special education money. That includes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Part B funding ($12.3 billion for students ages 3-21, about the same as the previous fiscal year); $391 millon for children ages 3-5 with disabilities (a $10 million proposed increase over the previous fiscal year) and $470 million for infants and families, the same amount as the previous fiscal year.

The budget would eliminate $17.6 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics; the Trump administration attempted to cut that funding in the previous fiscal year as well, but Congress gave the program a small boost instead. 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will be visiting Capitol Hill twice this week in support of this proposal and others that are part of the federal education budget.On March 26, she'll testify before the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees education; on Thursday, she'll address the Senate panel that deals with K-12 funding.

It's important to note that, while presidential budgets offer a roadmap of an administration's priorities, it is Congress that holds the power of the federal purse. But there are still a few things that may come up during DeVos' testimony and questioning from lawmakers: 

Full funding: This budget doesn't come close to funding IDEA at the level that Congress is authorized to spend. When the IDEA 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. In contrast, the federal contribution to special education in this budget proposal is around 13 percent. The amount of federal money proposed per pupil ages 3-21—$1,758—has actually gone down a bit, by $12, compared to the previous fiscal year. That's because the number of special education students has gone up. Will lawmakers ask DeVos about this (and will any of them commit to pushing for a full-funding bill themselves?) 

Equity in IDEA rule: This topic isn't directly related to the budget proposal, but it does involve money. A federal district judge ruled that the Education Department cannot delay a rule intended to prompt states to pay closer attention to minority overrepresentation in special education. The rule is complicated, but the upshot is that more school districts may find themselves having to spend a portion of their federal funds on remedying what the law calls "significant disproportionality." The judge made her ruling March 7, and the Education Department hasn't offered a public hint yet of whether it will continue to defend its delay. Congressmembers might attempt to get some clarification on the Department's plans. 

Scholarship program and students with disabilities: The administration is supporting a $5 billion scholarship program that would provide federal tax credits to individuals and companies that donate to scholarship-granting groups. If passed, these scholarships could help pay for a variety of educational activities, including helping special education students attend private schools. Students with disabilities who enroll in private school lose some of the individual protections that come with the IDEA, however. Democratic lawmakers have frequently pressed DeVos on this issue, and it might come up again. 

File Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sits in with a class at Greater Johnstown Elementary School in Johnstown, Pa. in 2018.—John Rucosky/The Tribune-Democrat via AP

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