Federal Dateline

Holding Congress to a Promise

by Mary Kusler

“Promises should never be broken” is something we are taught from our earliest years. Unfortunately, members of Congress do not live by this example. Twenty-seven years ago Congress made the promise to cover its fair share of the cost to provide educational opportunities for children with disabilities under the creation of what today is known as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. Public school leaders know this as the promise to provide 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure for every child with a disability. This promise has been broken since its inception. The congressional contribution currently reaches only 18 percent. While we cannot deny the recent increases, our legislators have yet to put IDEA on the path to full funding. President Bush’s 2004 budget proposal (covering the 2004-2005 school year) resulted in an anomaly. It was presented before the previous year’s appropriations bills were completed. When all was said and done, the president’s $1 billion increase proposed for IDEA amounted to only $665 million. This was due to unexpected increases in IDEA for the 2003-2004 school year beyond what the president had projected. At this rate, IDEA never will reach the congressional promise of 40 percent and local districts will continue to cover the federal shortfall. Clear Goals Opponents of mandatory full funding saw this as their opportunity to make the case for full funding of IDEA through the regular appropriations process. They jumped at the chance to prove you could secure the necessary funding increases by setting clear goals without making the increases an entitlement. Congressional leaders such as Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who adamantly oppose mandatory funding of IDEA, worked to provide for additional budgetary increases for IDEA totaling $2.2 billion for this year and $2.5 billion for next year. These increases were passed by both the House and the Senate. The House Education and the Workforce Committee took these goals one step further by voting for an amendment to HR 1350, the House IDEA reauthorization, to bring the funding benchmarks in line with the congressional budget resolution. The committee expected the Appropriations Committee would fund IDEA at the suggested increase in the budget resolution of $2.2 billion. Despite this push to set clear goals for IDEA increases, opponents of mandatory funding learned their lesson and other members of Congress were quick to break their promises again. Neither the House nor the Senate appropriations bills for labor, health and human services and education included the proposed increases for IDEA. Instead each contained less than a billion dollar increase for IDEA. The opponents of IDEA funding tried to use this opportunity to prove their point that clear budgetary goals eliminated the need for mandatory funding of IDEA. Instead it gave our supporters the perfect opportunity to illustrate that mandatory increases of IDEA are the only way that Congress can fulfill its promise. A Close Count This fall two issues are scheduled for Senate action—consideration of the Senate reauthorization of IDEA and the Senate education appropriations bill. Both will allow consideration of amendments that will increase funding for IDEA. The appropriations bill will have two amendments relating to IDEA funding. Both will increase funding for IDEA by $2.2 billion, but Gregg’s amendment would do it by cutting other education programs while Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and James Jeffords, I-Vt., would fund it with another offset that would not affect the funding levels of education programs. These attempts at increases for IDEA could succeed, but they would still have to be reconciled with the House increase of less that $1 billion and there is no guarantee that the higher increase would prevail. We also expect to witness the first up or down vote on mandatory full funding of IDEA in two years. Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will offer S939, their eight-year roadmap to fulfill the congressional promise on IDEA, as an amendment to the Senate reauthorization of IDEA. This amendment will be seen as critical toward success on full funding, yet highly controversial. Undoubtedly, much pressure will be applied to keep this from happening, but the timing and support is almost there to see mandatory full funding come to fruition. For the Hagel/Harkin amendment to succeed, we will need 60 votes in the Senate. As of late summer, we have a tentative count of 55. This is the time that everyone needs to check with his or her senators, Democrat or Republican, to make sure they know it is time for them to fulfill their promise on special education. Assume no one is a solid vote on this issue because we cannot afford to lose even one vote. With everyone activated and promoting the message, we can force Congress to deliver on its longstanding broken promise. Mary Kusler is a senior legislative specialist at AASA. E-mail: mkusler@aasa.org