Governors Demand Special Ed Reform

At their annual meeting in Boise, Idaho, the nation's governors pressed Congress to increase federal funding for special education and cut existing red tape when it reauthorizes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) this year.

When it wrote the law in 1975, Congress promised that the federal government would give states "up to 40 percent" of the funding required to provide children with special needs a "free" and "appropriate education."

Instead, the federal government provides an estimated 17 percent, leaving states to cover the remaining $40 billion it now costs to educate learning disabled children. Governors, state legislators and education officers have long demanded that Congress make the federal government foot its full portion of the bill.

"Students with disabilities should be given equal opportunities in the classroom, and the federal government needs to live up to its commitment and make that happen," said Democratic Indiana Governor Frank O'Bannon, the new chair of the National Governor's Association (NGA) Committee on Human Resources.

O'Bannon and five other governors served with representatives from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) on a six-month task force that crafted the IDEA policy adopted by the NGA. CCSSO is expected to adopt the policy at its annual meeting later this month.

In addition to reiterating the demand for full federal funding, the Joint NGA/CCSSO IDEA Policy also recommends that Congress cut red tape for special education programs.

"Funding is still important to governors, but in this policy we wanted to emphasize results and deemphasize the process," says Dane Linn, director of the education division at NGA.

Formulating the IDEA policy with NGA is one way CCSSO is trying to revamp its image, according to Patricia Sullivan, CCSSO's deputy executive director for advocacy and strategic alliance.

"In many ways the most important thing about the policy is that it was done jointly between the chiefs and governors," she says. "In the past, the council only took Democratic stances. It now wants to work in a bipartisan way with as many different groups as possible."

Andrew Rotherham, of the Progressive Policy Institute says that the teamwork is impressive. "These are two large organizations with diverse membership," he says. "To have them agree on a document like this is significant. Both have an impact on Congress, especially the governors."

That doesn't mean that the policy won't face opposition, Rotherham says. "IDEA is one of the most contentious issues in education. It [the policy] is going to face a lot of opposition from education advocates."

Tags: Education