In the small Sweetwater County School District #2 in Green River, Wyoming, federal funding for special education services is a minor portion — just 2% — of the overall costs to educate the district’s 2,600 students.

But when Sweetwater agrees to provide interventions to a student with disabilities, every dollar counts, said Special Services Director Alan Demaret.

“We have an open door policy that we are not allowed to close,” Demaret said. 

That door can’t close because when schools commit to services to students eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), those therapies and supports can’t be limited or eliminated based on available funding. In other words, schools are legally and financially responsible for each student’s plan for special education services.

“Regardless of who comes through that door, we have an obligation to appropriately meet their needs,” Demaret said.

That is why districts — large and small, urban and rural — nationwide are looking to the federal government to provide more funding for IDEA, which turns 45 on Nov. 29. 

The request is not just for more funding; the specific ask is for “full funding” of IDEA, or 40% of the additional cost to serve students with disabilities. The current IDEA funding level is at 13%  or, on average, $1,762 per IDEA-eligible student, according to IDEA Money Watch, which monitors IDEA funding. 

Over the past four decades, the federal government has not come close to meeting the 40% funding promise for the country’s 7 million IDEA-eligible students, except for one year — in 2009, when stimulus money from the Great Recession gave IDEA a temporary boost to 33%. Reaching IDEA full funding would increase the federal contribution from about $13 billion to more than $43 billion, according to recent legislation.

A chart from IDEA Money Watch details federal IDEA appropriation levels from 1988 to 2021.

Permission granted by IDEA Money Watch


But there is growing optimism on Capitol Hill, in school board chambers and in students’ homes that the 40% goal is within reach.

“I think it’s important that the federal government keeps its promises, and especially promises we’re making for the education of our country’s children,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, who has introduced legislation to fully fund both IDEA and Title I every session he’s been in Congress since 2002. Van Hollen said he will reintroduce the IDEA Full Funding Act and the Keep Our Promise to America’s Children and Teachers (PACT) Act, which proposes mandatory funding for IDEA and Title I, early in the 117th Congress. 

“Right now we have so many schools that are just trying to make ends meet and do not have the resources to provide the kind of special education that our children deserve,” Van Hollen said.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, also plans to reintroduce IDEA full funding legislation in the House of Representatives. “The exciting thing about this is every year we do this, our sponsorship grows, the coalition grows. We are becoming a truly impressive bipartisan coalition, and I expect that to be the case in the 117th Congress as well,” said Huffman.

The local impact

When IDEA was signed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, the law had a five-year, phased-in plan to provide states with 40% of the average per pupil expenditure (APPE) multiplied by the number of special education students, ages 3 to 21, in each state. This additional federal funding for special education students is in addition to the funding appropriated to educate all students with and without disabilities, and it helps offset some of the financial burden local and state education systems have to pay for special education services. 

“IDEA is a zero reject model,” said Candace Cortiella, director of The Advocacy Institute and organizer of IDEA Money Watch. Cortiella explains when states accept IDEA Part B grant funding, “They are, in fact, promising to serve every eligible student regardless of what it costs.”

The costs for special education services vary based on the intensity of support a student needs. For example, the interventions for a student with a specific learning disability may add to a few thousand dollars a year, while services for a student who requires residential placement could cost more than $50,000, according to various special education experts. 

“That’s the unpredictability we have because we have small populations. One or two students could move into your district… that does play a significant role if you have high-needs students who receive extensive programming, that districts may not have all those services available, and now they’re scrambling to try to contract with folks or individuals to try to come and service or place that student,” said Demaret.

Special education expenses, in general, have risen over the last 20 years because of the increase in the number of students with disabilities who require more intensive services, such as students with autism, according to the National Council on Disability (NCD) in its 2018 report, “Broken Promises: The Underfunding of IDEA.”

Overall, there is a lack of knowledge about the true costs of special education because there has not been a large-scale national study on the topic since the early 2000s, according to the NCD report. Complicating matters is the fact that most of the funding that pays for a student’s special education services comes from state and local budgets, which have different appropriation systems. 

The NCD report also points out federal IDEA funding is dependent on the annual appropriations process in Congress, because although the 40% full funding level is authorized in the IDEA, it is not guaranteed. 

Many education stakeholders, however, are convinced full funding at the federal level would have a noticeably positive impact at the local level. For example, Chad Rummel, executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children, said more federal money could allow schools to hire more qualified teachers, provide evidence-based professional development and purchase assistive technology for students with disabilities.

“Everyone who has any knowledge about the education system knows that the education system budget is strained across the board,” Rummel said. “Overall, a lift of the strain on budgets helps all students and it ensures that local budgets can meet the needs of special education.”

Funding solutions

While there is nearly universal agreement from school administration groups, parent advocates and lawmakers that the current level of IDEA funding is not enough to meet all the needs, there are differing opinions on the approaches to take with lessons learned from the past 45 years guiding those viewpoints.

For example, IDEA funding does not increase or decrease based on state or local special education performance and outcomes. One recommendation made in the NCD report is that if IDEA federal funding increases beyond a certain threshold, the additional money should be conditioned on improved performance. Another recommendation from the NCD report is that states give districts better guidance and oversight so schools can maximize federal funds. 

Keri Rodrigues, co-founder of the National Parents Union, which has affiliates in all states and Puerto Rico, said the group supports full funding of IDEA but wants legislation to provide more protections for students and families. The group wants there to be financial consequences for districts that do not meet their special education obligations, Rodrigues said.

“Unfortunately, the consequences for our children, especially poor, Black and brown families will be poverty, incarceration and death and just because your child has been identified as having special needs, learning different or may not be neurotypical, does not mean our children are not capable of proficiency or excellence,” Rodrigues said. ”There are no consequences when the system continues to fail our children. There are just excuses that there’s nothing they can do, it’s too expensive, we don’t have the skills or resources.”

It’s unlikely that expected legislation for IDEA full funding will condition funding based on certain performance criteria. Those details, however, may be debated when Congress decides to reauthorize IDEA, which was last updated in 2004. That reauthorization included a 10-year plan with specific funding allocations that would have incremental increases toward the full funding goal, which was never realized.

For now, full funding supporters remain optimistic a new Congress and presidential administration will bring federal special education funding closer to the 40% promise. Campaign information from President-Elect Joe Biden says he is supportive of a 10-year plan for IDEA full funding. 

“Some of the pieces are falling into place, and I just think we have to keep pushing as hard as we can,” Huffman said.

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