National School Boards Association Pushes for Federal Special Education Law Overhaul
Is this the year that Congress will take up the long-overdue renewal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—plus boost funding for the law?
The National School Boards Association wants to see both. Advocating for "full funding" of IDEA is a perennial issue, but the association is also drawing attention to the fact that the law, last reauthorized in 2004, needs to be rewritten to address more up-to-date concerns about educating students with disabilities.
"This is our big initiative, our big push for this Congress," said Thomas Gentzel, the executive director of the school boards association.
And the organization is moving forward on multiple fronts. First, Congress has already shown it can pass major education bills—the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed four years ago, and in 2018, Congress passed and President Trump signed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, a reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. That $1.2 billion program was last passed by Congress in 2006.
So, Gentzel said, Congress has shown that it can do this policy work, even though lawmakers have yet to introduce this session a bill that would increase IDEA funding. "It's important for Congress to express its support for the legislation it passed but funding it at the level it promised to fund it."
Back in 1975, when the law that was to become the Individuals with Disabilities Act was passed, Congress authorized itself to pick up 40 percent of the extra cost of educating a student in special education. But the federal government has never come close to that level. Right now, the federal government pays for about 14 percent of those expenses, leaving the rest to states and school districts. Current federal spending under the IDEA stands at $12.5 billion.
Gentzel said that NSBA plans to start talking about special education success stories. "They exist in every congressional district in the country."
That said, there are some parts of the law that could be improved, said Chris Ungar, a former special education teacher and administrator who is also a member of the board of the NSBA. "For example, now that ESSA has been reauthorized, it's important that we look at the connection between ESSA and IDEA."
Accountability is an important example, Ungar said. "When we hear about teachers spending up to 40 percent of their time on compliance isues, we need to talk about that and we need to talk about what that means for the education of students, if we're taking teachers away from actually teaching."
A renewed IDEA could also take into account the differences in student population over the last 15 years, Ungar said. There's been a marked increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism, for example, though students with "specific learning disabilities" such as dyslexia remain the largest group of students with disabilities.
Gentzel said the the Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives, have a "pent-up agenda" that they want to take on a number of different education topics.
"One of our goals is to make sure [special education] is one of those issues," he said.
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