Promises, promises …

President Obama released his proposed budget for FY 2012 on February 14, 2011. But long before that, Candidate Obama made this commitment if elected :

Fully Funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Barack Obama has been a strong and consistent advocate for fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Congress promised to shoulder 40 percent of each state’s “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities, but it has never lived up to this obligation. Currently, the federal government provides less than half of the promised funding (17 percent). Children are being shortchanged, and their parents are forced to fight with cash-strapped school districts to get the free and appropriate education the IDEA promises their children. Fully funding IDEA will provide students with disabilities the public education they have a right to, and school districts will be able to provide services without cutting into their general education budgets. In addition to fully funding IDEA, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will ensure effective implementation and enforcement of the Act.”

Source: Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan To Empower Americans With Disabilities

So much for promises. Obama’s proposed budget provides just $200 million more for federal funding of the IDEA – a meager increase in the face of a funding shortfall that measures some $14 billion. As the chart below shows, the IDEA Part B (grants to states) appropriation is so far off the mark for “Full funding” that it doesn’t even equal HALF of the promised amount.

IDEA funding chart

Source: New America Foundation

So what, exactly, is “full funding” of IDEA? The term is misleading, and, therefore, the funding “promise” made by Congress in IDEA is often misrepresented. Its really pretty simple, however. Back in 1975 when Congress enacted original special education law – then called the Education of All Handicapped Children Act and later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Congress set a maximum target for the federal contribution to special education spending equal to 40 percent of the estimated excess cost of educating children with disabilities. At the time, Congress estimated that educating children with disabilities would cost approximately twice as much as it costs to educate non-disabled children. So, Congress committed to providing 40% of the excess cost of providing special education (not 100% as is often reported), and set the federal contribution at 40% of the average per pupil expenditure (APPE) nationwide. (Note: One nationwide study showed that special education costs are 1.9 times that expended on general education students.)

So then, if IDEA were “fully funded,” the annual federal appropriation would be 40% of the national average per pupil expenditure – referred to as “APPE” – for elementary and secondary education times the number of children with disabilities served. To be clear, when sent off to local school districts around the country, that amount would not be 40% of the excess cost in every district – the percent would vary depending on how much each local district spends on education. The amount districts spend “per pupil” varies significantly across the nation! (To find out your state’s IDEA funding gap, get your State Special Education Scorecard at

The Bottom Line

The possibility of achieving “full funding” of IDEA anytime in the near (or far) future seems extremely remote. The appropriators in Congress don’t seem to understand that this is a commitment to help offset the local districts’ expense of providing special education to eligible students with disabilities – not a  program designed to boost student achievement,  like so many of the programs funded by the U.S. Dept. of Education. In fact, contrary to the statement released with the President’s budget request, this $200 million increase will NOT “help to improve the quality of the education students with disabilities receive so they can participate in the general education curriculum to the maximum extent possible and are prepared for college and a career, or both.” Bottom line, this is really a “cost sharing” deal where one party isn’t keeping its end of the deal.

The President’s FY2012 proposed budget shows that he has no intention of keeping his campaign promise. And the upcoming Congressional debate  will likely show, once again, that the Congress also has no intention of keeping its promise.

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