Pressured by rising costs of special education, states are urging the federal government to honor its pledge to pay 40 percent of the expense of schooling learning and physically disabled children. That would more than treble what Washington now contributes in an area of public education that collectively costs $49.2 billion annually.
The issue has reached such a level that the major party presidential candidates, Texas Gov. George Bush and Vice President Al Gore, have promised more funding.
Special education students range from those who need remedial help or have behavioral problems to those with physical disabilities and are in need of constant care.
Under a 1976 federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school districts are required to provide a quality education to disabled students. The law stipulates that the federal government will bear 40 percent of the cost, but Congress has consistently under-funded the program.
A 1993 survey of 24 states found that seven percent of special ed funding came from the federal government, 53 percent from the states and 40 percent from local school districts, according to the Education Commission on the States (ECS).
Over the last five years national special education enrollments have increased on average by at least 184,000 students annually.
Standards-based-reforms may be a contributing factor. Experts say it appears that teachers are pushing students who can't meet state standards into special education classes.
There is also an incentive for schools to classify low-achieving students as special ed because in many states special ed test scores are not measured for accountability purposes
"As we increase standards more and more kids are not going to be able to meet those standards, and unless we create other alternatives than putting them in special education, we will see even more increases in numbers," says Thomas B. Parrish, Director of the Center for Special Education Finance at the American Institutes of Research in Palo Alto, Calif.
Some states are rebelling at the rising cost of special education and cutting spending. A Vermont panel told lawmakers that the state won't be able to sustain the growing expense and "cost-containment must become a system-wide priority."
Last month, Massachusetts lawmakers decided to bring its more generous special education program in line with federal requirements. The move may trim 30,000 students from the special education rolls and save the state $157 million annually.<>
Bush and Gore say they would support large increases in IDEA's $5.75 billion in state grants. "We must continue to be committed to providing quality education to all of our children. As President, I will remain unalterably supportive of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in order to maintain this fundamental commitment," Gore said.
Bush's plan would include using money earmarked for the nation's low-income students to identify students with learning disabilities earlier. Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan says Bush will also invest $1 billion a year for five years to help these children learn to read by the third grade, bringing them up to speed with their general education peers.