The Imperative of Fully Funding IDEA

by MARY KUSLER

Congress has another opportunity to fulfill a promise made long ago by funding special education. The only way to do this, in our view at AASA, is by making funding for special education mandatory. This would commit Congress to providing over six years the necessary increases of $2.5 billion each year, to reach the 40 percent funding level it once promised.

With the funding situation in Washington growing worse every day, the fiscal picture does not seem ideal to ask for such an increase. In reality, now is the best time to ask for such an increase. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures 33 states are facing budget shortfalls and are cutting K-12 state dollars as a result. The money flow from the federal and state level is slowing to a trickle, leaving the burden to the locals. This economic inequity cannot remain so.

The $10.5 billion federal shortfall in IDEA is being borne by the local school districts. Not only should Washington live up to its funding commitment, but local school leadership should be granted flexibility to reclaim their local dollars from IDEA to use for general educational purposes.

AASA’s polling last summer to gauge public opinion about special education funding showed that 85 percent of Americans do not want students without disabilities to be denied educational opportunities when the high cost of special education is pitted against educational services for students in general education. This is exactly what happens when school districts with limited funding are forced to choose. Advanced courses for the most able are cancelled. Athletics and extracurricular activities suffer. With shrinking funds the increasing demands of the No Child Left Behind Act will be even harder to meet.

Missouri offers a prime example where local districts are carrying the funding burden for the federal and state governments. Between 1993 and 2003, funding for special education grew $367 million in the Show Me State. In the same period, the state’s share of special education costs went from 30 percent to 16 percent ($129 million to $150 million), while the local share went from 60 percent up to 67 percent ($263 million to $630 million), according to the Missouri Association of School Administrators. Local schools are bearing much of the increasing burden with dollars being taken from the general education budget to cover special education costs.

State Shortfalls
At the same time we are promoting flexibility in the local maintenance of effort provisions contingent on the mandatory funding increases, some politicians are pushing for the same flexibility at the state level. This is a significant problem in a year when states are trying to cover their funding shortfalls from all possible angles. If governors are allowed to reduce their state’s support for special education while Congress is increasing its share, no incentive will remain to put money toward special education as it will free up dollars in the states’ strained budgets.

The actions of California and Gov. Gray Davis make this evident. When that state received its federal funding increase for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for the current school year, the governor chose to offset the federal increase within other areas of his budget to fill the funding shortfall. In effect special education received no new dollars at the local level.

Technically the state did pass the money through to local school districts but used the federal increase in place of the state cost of living increase. California traditionally has provided a cost of living increase in state funding for IDEA. Essentially, the governor used the federal dollars to pay what the state would have paid if no federal increase was provided. This cost districts approximately $120 million in funding for special education, thereby increasing the local burden.

The state flexibility in the current law had a profound impact on local districts. Imagine what would have happened if the states had even more flexibility within IDEA to reduce their effort. The burden on local districts would be much more severe.

Groundswell Needed
The 108th Congress will see the reintroduction of a mandatory full funding bill by Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. In this standalone bill, IDEA will be put on the track to 40 percent in six years by ensuring that the federal increases are through mandatory spending. Additionally, this bill will contain the flexibility within the local maintenance of effort that districts can take back their local dollars and use them for general education purposes.

We must build the groundswell once again and let Congress know now is the time they lived up to their promise to fully fund special education.

Mary Kusler is a legislative specialist for AASA. E-mail: mkusler@aasa.org