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The State of IDEA Special Education Funding Shows That Lawmakers Don’t Prioritize Kids

IDEA, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, helps kids with learning disabilities thrive in the classroom. It's also never been fully funded.

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In 1975, then-President Gerald Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which was later tweaked and rebranded as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA, as it came to be known, is a formula grant of several parts (A, B, C, and D) that makes funding available for states to provide a good education to children with disabilities, and funds the special education programs those kids require. In the authorization bill, it was stated that the federal government would provide about 40 percent of the funding for the program and each state would need to come up with the next 60 percent of said funding. 

As it stands, IDEA funding is at its lowest ever recorded. This is a disgrace. 

IDEA, for all of its benefits, has actually never been fully funded since its inception. That’s because there’s a difference between what’s “authorized” and what’s “appropriated.” The bill — which was reauthorized in 2004 and amended through the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 — provides the formula for full funding, a calculation based on how many students live in a given state, among other factors. Each state uses their own formula. Today, IDEA serves over six million kids across the country — and was only funded at around $12 billion in 2017, amounting to some 14.6 percent of the cost being picked up by the federal government, a far cry from their 40 percent commitment. Because of this, states are left to make do however they can. 

What’s appropriated, on the other hand, is what’s given to the program every year in the annual budgetary process. That means that while other programs like Social Security and Medicaid, which are mandatory from the budget perspective and automatically grow every year in real dollars, IDEA languishes as part of the ‘discretionary’ funds bucket. There, it is limited by budget caps and fighting for money in a small pie of funds. (Other programs that live in this bucket include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF], Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), and actually, much of the federal education budget. Not a single dollar of the K-12 budget came from mandatory funds for the Fiscal Year of 2019; all of it was annually appropriated. 

“The federal budget process disadvantages children,” says Rachel Merker, the Director of Policy and Research at First Focus on Children, a bipartisan think tank that studies how the federal government budgets for American kids. “Structurally, when programs like IDEA come out of the discretionary side of the budget, they are subject to annual appropriations process and they get squeezed out by other programs. If congress wanted to fully fund IDEA, there’d be no money left for other programs. The federal government needs to increase the size of the discretionary pie so that programs like this can be funded without cutting other programs that support the health, wellbeing and education of children.”

In other words, if IDEA Funding was on the mandatory side of the budget — or if more money were funneled into the discretionary budget in general — politicians and policy makers wouldn’t have to pick and choose which essential programs for kids they want to save. 

“Fundamental and important programs for kids, including IDEA, are made to fight for an increasingly smaller piece of pie in a pie that’s size never changes or, sometimes, shrinks. On its face, it appears that the federal government does not prioritize kids wellbeing,” Merker adds. 

As a result of that funding gap, states, required to educate every student, have to find ways to fund their own special education programs and teachers. The majority of students with disabilities today spend most of their time in general education classrooms and are enrolled in a higher number than ever and graduating high school and college in record rates. While the number of students who qualify for IDEA funding has grown by a quarter in the past two decades, IDEA’s funding has not budged. Meanwhile, districts are required to pay more of the cost of educating their students with disabilities — all while staring down budget cuts and a scarcity of resources. 

As a result, there’s a domino effect: districts, wanting for cash, have to funnel general funding into IDEA and cut other programs like art and music classes or fire special education teachers and put differently abled kids into general education classrooms, which does not always serve them appropriately. As a result, school districts are unable to give teachers raises or invest in smaller class sizes, classroom resources, or paying special education teachers appropriately.

“If you’re not providing adequate funding for IDEA, you’re also lowering the quality of education for every student. They’re still going to have the costs of educating higher-cost students, but they’re not going to be receiving adequate funding, so it’ll take away from not only the target population, but every student, as well,” says Drew Aherne, the Assistant Director of Public Policy at First Focus. 

But it’s not all bad news for kids who are helped by IDEA. In fact, Aherne points to the “Keep Our Pact Act” — which was introduced by Democratic Senator from Maryland Chris Van Holland, and Democratic U.S. Representative Susie Lee from Nevada — that would require that the federal government fulfills its authorized budget for not just the IDEA program, but also Title I funding, which is federal funding for the country’s poorest schools. The bill was introduced in December of last year and has since gone nowhere. 

As it stands, IDEA funding is at its lowest ever recorded. Maybe one day the federal government will fulfill its promise to America’s public school students — but until that point, state governments will struggle to replace funding the federal government isn’t giving them at the cost of American kids while the federal budget continues to balloon, and deprioritize, the very kids the government claims to serve. The story isn’t new. It’s typical. But it is, quite frankly, abhorrent.