Meet the ARRA Albatross

The word “albatross” – used metaphorically to mean a psychological burden that feels like a curse (according to Wikipedia) – seems like a very appropriate way to describe the IDEA Recovery Act funds at this point. Some 26 months into the period allowed for use of the $11.3 billion made available to local school districts – and just 5 months out from the date by which ALL Recovery Act (ARRA) funds must be obligated, we continue to have this pot of unexpected money used as an excuse for not providing increased funds via the annual federal appropriations process.

In a Q+A session with the Council for Exceptional Children, Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded to the question of basic IDEA funding by telling us everything except what we wanted to know. The exchange went like this:

CEC: I saw that the President added $200 million to IDEA for FY 2012, but I also saw that the full funding dropped to 16.5%. What are you doing to ensure full funding for IDEA, including Part B, Section 619, Part C, and Part D?

ARNE: President Obama and I are absolutely committed to funding for IDEA and supporting the education of students with disabilities. Even in this fiscal climate, the President’s fiscal 2012 budget includes a $200 million increase for Part B Grants to states for 2012. This represents the Administration’s commitment to achieving improved results for children with disabilities while reducing the long‐term budget deficit. In addition, states received $12.2 billion in Recovery Act funds that they are still able to spend to meet urgent needs related to the economic climate. Continue reading

At the rate of increase proposed by the Administration – should it survive the appropriations process in Congress – it would take some 70 years to get to ‘full funding’ for IDEA (40% of the excess cost of special education, as explained here.) As Mr. Kline, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee in the House of Representatives, pointed out to Mr. Duncan at a hearing to review the proposed education budget (listen to the discussion here), the department managed to find lots of new money for new programs such as Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation Fund. Duncan continually makes the point that these programs benefit all students, including students with disabilities. While we get the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ argument, its not appropriate in this discussion – a discussion about a commitment made to local school districts to help offset a portion of the excess cost of special education with federal funds.

The mention of ARRA funds in Arne’s answer about FY 2012 funding begs the question, “When will the Recovery Act funds stop being used as an excuse not to fund IDEA increases?” Despite IDEA provisions allowing local districts to supplant up to 50% of the ARRA funds, these funds continue to be used as an excuse.

2012 promises to be another difficult year for local school districts. States are facing persistent budget gaps, as reported by the National Conference of State Legislatures in March 2011 and many will continue to reduce state aid for K-12 education. The IDEA ARRA funds will have run out (all funds must be obligated by September 30, 2011.) Many local districts will have reduced their local spending on special education due to the increased funds received via the ARRA. These districts have no obligation to restore local spending to its previous level when ARRA funds run out (see our brief presentation on the impact of IDEA federal funds over time). Little if any increase will be provided via 2012 federal appropriations, due in large part to the Obama administration’s timid budget request and continued use of ARRA IDEA funds as an excuse.

Meet the ARRA Albatross.

Leave a Reply