Federal Dateline

25 Years Without Paying the Bills

by JORDAN CROSS


This month marks the 25th anniversary of federally mandated education for students with disabilities. In 1975 Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (then known as the Education for All Handicapped Act ), and millions of children with special needs were guaranteed access to an education.

For school administrators of the day, the debate leading up to the historic act was not an issue of whether students with disabilities ought to be a part of public schooling. There was general support for the idea all children deserved a free and appropriate public education.

However, significant worries were raised over the exorbitant cost of educating several million more students, all with special physical, emotional and developmental needs. To alleviate those concerns, Congress made a promise to educators: The federal government would pay 40 percent of per-pupil expenditures, computed as a national average. It is now a quarter century later, and Congress has yet to fulfill its promise.


Escalating Costs
This year the federal share of IDEA, if fully funded at the 40 percent level, would amount to approximately $15.8 billion. Congress, instead, is ponying up a mere $4.9 billion, leaving local school districts holding the bill for an extra $10.9 billion this year alone. By our best estimates, state and local governments have been shortchanged more than $300 billion over the last 25 years in their provision of services for youngsters with disabilities.

There is no easy answer for local governments struggling to deal with the shortfall. Taxes can be raised, education programs can be cut--or, most likely, some combination of the two. No matter what schools have chosen to do, the problem is by no means over. IDEA costs and enrollments continue to rise. The proportion of school budgets designated for special education has grown from 3 percent of expenditures in 1975 to more than 20 percent in 1996.

Since IDEA is a federal mandate, schools have no option except to continue moving more and more funds into their special education budget. About 40 percent of the new funds for schools since 1967 have gone to serve the 11 percent of students who are eligible for IDEA.

We cannot maintain this pace forever. To pay for the federal share of IDEA, other educational improvements have been forgone, school construction has been delayed and teachers and specialists have not been hired. We must make Congress live up to its promise.

A Different Tack
After years of fighting for IDEA funding increases in the perennial congressional budget battles, AASA is taking a new approach. We believe it is time to make Congress enter a binding agreement and lock in mandatory funding increases for the next five years.

In our new proposal, IDEA funding would be increased by $2.2 billion during each of the five years until it reached the 40 percent level promised in 1975. After five years, IDEA would become an entitlement program--no matter how much IDEA expenses increased or decreased, the federal government would be bound to pay 40 percent of national average per-pupil expenditures. Although Congress has made progress over the last few years, spending has only reached 13 percent of national average per-pupil expenditures. We cannot continue at this snail’s pace.

AASA’s proposal is coming late in the budget cycle, yet great reason for optimism exists. Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., offered a similar proposal on April 7 during the budget debates in the Senate. His bipartisan bill received 47 votes and nearly passed. Unfortunately, Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., succeeded in taking all of the funding out of the bill. Instead of guaranteeing $30 billion in new funds, Voinovich and Gregg passed an alternative that simply suggested Congress ought to fund IDEA.

In the months since that vote, AASA has been encouraging members to write to their representatives and push for IDEA to become an entitlement program.

The outlook in the administration is equally promising. AASA President Ben Canada had an opportunity to discuss the proposal with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley during a recent rural education event in Louisiana. The secretary was pleased with the idea, stating in a speech the next day that he was fully committed to making IDEA funds mandatory.

The combination of elections and an omnibus appropriations bill offers a unique opportunity to pass the entitlement proposal. The enthusiasm and support for the full funding of IDEA is out there. Educators and politicians all agree that the promise needs to be kept. It is only a matter
of when.

Jordan Cross is a legislative specialist at AASA.