Understanding Full Funding

What, exactly, is “full funding” of IDEA?

The term is misleading, and, therefore, the funding “promise” made by Congress in IDEA is often misrepresented. It’s 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 authorized a funding level equal to 40% of the excess cost of providing special education (not 100% as is often reported). The amount was set at 40% of the national average per pupil expenditure (APPE). (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 adjusted by the number of children with disabilities served. 

To be clear, when the federal funds are 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 states and districts spend “per pupil” varies significantly across the nation. For example, in the 2016-2017 school year, the per pupil expenditure ranged from a high of $20,264 in Wyoming to a low of $8,599 in Idaho (see this chart for all states).

See also:

National Council on Disability, Broken Promises: The Underfunding of IDEA, 2018.

Congressional Research Service, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Funding: A Primer, Updated October 1, 2018. R44624

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