Special education is the largest, single unfunded mandate placed on Wisconsin schools and the continual underfunding of special education costs is a vexing problem for Wisconsin school boards. However, relief may be on the way.
Federal legislation known as the IDEA Full Funding Act was reintroduced on Nov. 16. The bill reflects an effort to finally ensure Congress fully meets its longstanding commitment to fund special education services required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The bipartisan and bicameral support for the bill–i.e., support from members of both parties in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives–is raising hopes for its passage.
The bill calls for increasing federal special education funding each year over a 10-year period to reach the funding level Congress originally pledged to meet when it enacted this landmark federal special education law. It would correct Congress’ longstanding failure to uphold its end of the bargain.
Each year that Congress fails to meet its promise, local school districts are forced to pay a higher proportion of the special education cost. As a consequence, districts are also often forced to make hard decisions about which programs to fund (or cut). Schools and districts are often forced to divert funds from programs that serve all students (including students with disabilities) to pay for the unfunded costs of meeting the IDEA’s mandates.
In 1975, when Congress initially passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later tweaked and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) to ensure that every child with a disability has access to educational opportunity, it also committed to funding a substantial portion the increased costs to states and local school districts of providing additional services to students with disabilities.
Specifically, Congress committed the federal government to pay 40 percent of the extra cost for educating special education students with disabilities. In other words, the feds would pay for 40 percent of the additional cost required to educate students with disabilities (compared to the average cost per student for educating students without disabilities). However, that pledge has never been met, and current federal funding pays for just 15.7 percent of those additional costs.
One reason is that the number of students with disabilities served under IDEA has steadily increased while funding has not kept pace. For example, over the two decades from 1995 to 2015, the number of students with disabilities increased by 25 percent.
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin is among the Senate co-sponsors of the IDEA Full Funding Act.