Stateline Story

Lobbying Season Opens For Special Education

  • February 27, 2002
  • By Tiffany Danitz

The way the state officials, legislators, and local school board members see it the federal government hasn't lived up to its 27- year-old promise to fund 40 percent of the total cost of educating children with learning problems and/or physical handicaps. And they came to Washington to change that.

"We were very clear with what we want - full funding for IDEA," said Tripp Helms, a school board member from Union County, North Carolina. Helms traveled to Washington to lobby North Carolina's Congressional delegation.

"If we don't get full federal funding of IDEA it will be because they (Congress) are saying no. Because they definitely heard us on it and they still decided against it, " Helms told Stateline.org.

But the federal government takes a different position. Members of Congress and the President say IDEA needs reform. Too many kids who struggle with reading or act up in the classroom are being wrongly labeled as learning disabled-something reform advocates call "over-identification."

As for the long-promised 40 percent funding, the federal government's argument relies on semantics; the law commits only to paying "up to 40 percent." At the time it was first written in 1975, the courts were ordering more and more states to pay for the education of children with special needs who had previously been institutionalized or left at home. The federal government intervened to help states deal with escalating costs.

Washington provided money in exchange for giving children with special needs a "free" and "appropriate" education. More specifically, it said, students are "entitled" to lesson plans tailored to their needs that spell out the services a student should get to reach his learning goals.

But instead of solving the problem, Congress created an unfunded mandate that requires states to pay the full cost of educating learning disabled children - even those who need 24-hour nursing care, or transportation to a special school.

And local taxpayers make up for the shortfall. Experts say it costs between $35 and $60 billion to educate the 5.6 million special-needs kids. The federal share was recently bumped up to an estimated 13 percent from 12 percent in 1997 and 7-8 percent before that. In 2001 taxpayers paid $11 billion to shore up the federal shortfall.

Uncle Sam Wants Reform

At a recent meeting of state legislators in Washington, Delaware's US Representative Mike Castle (R), Chairman of the subcommittee that oversees IDEA, told legislators that full funding won't come quickly and it won't come without reforming IDEA.

But David Shreve, a lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures argued that cutting back on over-identification wouldn't really change the cost of special education.

"Many of these referrals are for reading problems, but unfortunately these referrals are not the high cost kids that break the backs of school systems," Shreve said.

Union County, N.C., where school board member Helms is from, is growing out of its rural roots as the city of Charlotte spreads out. There are nearly 25,000 children in K-12 schools, 2,964 of them are special education kids who cost taxpayers $12,400,000, according to Helms. He says it would be imprudent for school boards to willfully over-identify students.

"That (special education) kid costs us about $8,000 to educate and the federal government kicks in about $800 bucks. Why would we over-identify when we pay the lion's share of the costs?"

But there are plenty of perverse incentives for schools and teachers to over-identify children, according to Andy Rotherham, of the Progressive Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

School principals and teachers pick children for the program, not the more detached school board or superintendent, Rotherham says. "The schools are trying to get extra services for a child who is struggling and that makes perfect sense," Rotherham adds.

States Are Disappointed But Hopeful

Governors, legislators and education officers have made special education funding their top priority with 30 legislatures passing resolutions calling on Congress to fully fund special education.

The issue was so important to Vermont's US Senator Jim Jeffords that he left the Republican Party and became in Independent when President Bush rebuffed his attempts to get full funding for special education.

When Jefford's defection failed to galvanize the Administration's support, Senators' Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) attached an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Bill (ESEA) - the largest federal education policy and funding bill- that would have fully funded IDEA.

The measure would have for the first time folded IDEA into ESEA and would have moved money for special education from the discretionary side of the federal budget to the mandatory side.

The US Senate approved the amendment but it was taken out of the bill by the GOP majority on the House side.

During the recent lobbying campaign, Delaware's Castle told state legislators they would fail if they try to get mandatory funding. It will stay discretionary, but Congress would start moving toward fully funding the 40 percent on a "glide-scale," he predicted.

"My view is, mandatory, discretionary, glide-scale, secret offshore partnership, whatever, just fund it," said Union County's Helms.

The December decision not to fully fund IDEA came just as states were looking at a shortfall expected to reach at least $40 billion.

"At a time when many states are facing budget shortfalls and the new federal education law will require new state spending, fully-funding special education has become more important than ever," says David Griffith, spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Tags: Education