IDEA Must be Fully Funded - But First it Must be Fixed
April 16, 2002
In 1975, Congress opened the doors of learning to millions of children by approving landmark legislation -- the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- mandating that children with special education needs have access to the same public school education that every other young American enjoys.
In its current form, however, IDEA is over-identifying minority children as disabled - and it needs systemic reform before full funding is made mandatory. Americaís special education system has a significant problem with the over-identification of minority students, and reports have shown that IDEA, in its current form, leaves too much room for this problem.
The current program also poses a significant red tape burden on local school districts, which are clamoring for reform in how IDEA works.
Fixing and funding special education is the next major project in education reform. Congress needs to fix IDEA, while also moving the government toward its fair share of the funding.
The Presidentís budget provides $8.53 billion -- a $1 billion increase - for IDEA. This provides 12% annual increase in IDEA spending - a rate of increase that would allow for full funding of IDEA within ten years.
REFORM MUST COME FIRST
As Education Secretary Rod Paige has noted, there are serious problems with how the current system delivers special education services to American students - problems that will not be remedied by simply throwing more money at special education. Putting children into special education simply because they canít read not only prevents them from reaching their full potential; it also robs children who have real learning and physical disabilities of the federal dollars intended for them.
President Bush has included a billion dollar increase for IDEA funding, but IDEA must be reformed so that this money can be applied effectively to those for whom it is intended. Republicans want IDEA to address the particular challenges faced by the students and teachers in special education with reform that goes beyond money.
CURRENT PROGRAM OVER-IDENTIFIES MINORITY STUDENTS FOR SPECIAL ED
IDEA must be reformed to ensure that funds are spent effectively. Last year, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard released a series of reports, including a report on the racial biases in special education and the over-representation of minorities in special education.
∑One report found that African American children are almost three times as likely as white children to be labeled mentally retarded and placed in special education classes.
∑It found that among secondary school students with disabilities, 75 percent of African American students, as compared to 47 percent of white students, are unemployed two years out of school.
∑Another report found that while African American students may be over-represented in special education, they might be receiving less-relevant educational services and related services than white students with disabilities. For instance, the study found that white students with disabilities received twice as much occupational therapy and life training services than similar African American students. In some cases, white students received an average two to three times the number of specific vocational education services that African American students received.
Congress must answer the question of why there is such an over-representation of minority students in the special education system in order to remedy the situation. Once a remedy is in place, Congress should consider reforming the funding mechanism for IDEA part B.
PRESIDENTíS EARLY READING INITIATIVES PAVE WAY FOR IDEA REFORM
This year, the President took a major step to improve early learning opportunities for disadvantaged children by signing into law the Reading First and Early Reading First initiatives. Both are part of the ESEA reauthorization bill, and both pave the way for reform of IDEA. For FY 2003, the Presidentís budget calls for an extra $600 million for reading programs -- tripling federal literacy funding from $300 million to $900 million this year.
As Washington Post columnist David Broder noted in a recent column on early childhood education: ďMore and more research is showing that brain development and acquisition of learning skills in the first five years largely determine later school achievement. And research demonstrates that high-quality preschool programs pay off, not just in better student performance but also in preventing dropouts, delinquency, and juvenile crime.Ē The Presidentís reading initiatives emphasize scientifically based instruction to ensure that children in Head Start and other pre-school programs learn vital pre-reading skills before entering grade school.
At the same time, problems with existing programs such as IDEA limit opportunities for minority children. Due to flaws in IDEAís current structure, minority children are over-identified for special education services, and local school districts that serve them are enmeshed in paperwork rather than service delivery. Some children are being diagnosed as needing IDEA services simply because they did not receive proper early reading instruction.
Improving education starts with a belief that every American child can learn to read. The Presidentís Reading First initiative gives states both the funds and the tools they need to eliminate the reading deficit and ensure that every child is given proper reading instruction before being placed in special education classes.
MANDATORY FUNDING WILL HAVE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
Providing schools with a huge guaranteed funding stream will have unintended consequences. For instance, additional funds will allow schools to identify even more children as being in need of special education services, when all those students may need is additional appropriate instruction. In 1997, Congress reformed IDEA to prevent schools from over-identifying students for special education services by changing the funding formula and by requiring that students in need of additional reading, math, and English language instruction not be identified for special education. Mandatory funding would undo these reforms.
Making IDEA a mandatory spending program will make it very difficult to enact much-needed reforms to its current structure. Once the program is mandatory, any changes to the program must be scored. If these changes cost money, then an offset must be found to pay for the changes. Offsets are typically difficult to find.
STUDY WILL DETERMINE ACTUAL COSTS OF EDUCATING DISABLED CHILDREN
The federal governmentís commitment to provide 40 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure to assist with the excess costs of educating students with disabilities was premised on an estimate, made in 1975, that the actual costs of providing special education are twice the costs of educating non-disabled students. The 1997 amendments to IDEA included a requirement that the current costs of educating students with disabilities be studied. The results of this study are expected within the next year.
The study may find that costs are much higher than twice the costs of educating non-disabled students or it may find that costs are less than the estimate. Regardless, if IDEA is made a mandatory funding program prior to receiving the results of the study, then the federal government is locked into funding the program at 40 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure. Once this calculation is tied to mandatory funding, then revising it is extremely difficult.
Moreover, in the long run, making it a mandatory funding program could prevent IDEA from receiving substantial funding increases. In the late 1980s, the Vocational Rehabilitation State Grant program was made mandatory through a required annual cost of living increase. Since then, the program has received no more than these annual cost of living increases. IDEA is receiving substantial funding increases as a discretionary program. In fact, it has received a 224 percent increase in funding since 1995 when Republicans took control of Congress.
EDUCATION COMMITTEE WILL LOOK AT CRITICAL ISSUES
IDEA is up for reauthorization this year, and the Education & the Workforce Committee will take a comprehensive look at a range of issues critical to disabled students, including full funding for IDEA.
Several other points are critically important to remember:
∑Since the GOP took control of the House seven years ago, Republicans have more than doubled IDEA spending, increasing it by 224 percent. Funding for the Part B grants to states program, which is by far the largest part of IDEA, increased from $2.3 billion in FY 1995 to $7.5 billion for FY 2002. This is in stark contrast to the previous six years under the control of Democrats, during which spending increased from $1.5 billion to $2.3 billion over six years.
∑Moreover, the House addressed this issue directly in the last Congress, passing the IDEA Full Funding Act (H.R. 4055) by a vote of 421-3. The measure would have set a schedule for increasing the authorization level for IDEA funding by $2 billion annually over 10 years until Congress met its obligation to fully fund the program. The Senate failed to consider the bill before adjournment.
∑Switching a program from discretionary spending to mandatory spending, which the Senate proposes to do with IDEA, imposes a major change that should not be implemented without fully considering its impact on all IDEA programs.