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.

Back in 1975 when Congress enacted the original special education law – then called the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – Congress set a maximum target for the federal contribution to special education spending at 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 the cost 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 metric used to determine the “excess cost” was the national average per pupil expenditure (APPE). Thus, the authorized amount was set at 40% of the national average per pupil expenditure or APPE. (Note: One nationwide study showed that special education costs are 1.9 times that expended on general education students.)

If IDEA were “fully funded,” the annual federal appropriation for Section 611 would be 40% of the national average per pupil expenditure (APPE) for elementary and secondary education adjusted for each state’s annual changes in child population and poverty rate. This chart provides the appropriations history from 1987 to 2021. As the chart shows, the percentage of APPE has never exceeded 18 percent (except in 2009 when the Recovery Act provided a one-time doubling of the appropriated funds).

To be clear, when IDEA federal funds are sent off to states and then to local school districts (LEAs) 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, while the average was $13,834 per pupil, that amount ranged from a high of $20,264 in Wyoming to a low of $8,599 in Idaho. (see this chart for all states).

When considering increases in federal funding for IDEA, it is important to keep in mind that Congress added a “maximum” allowable grant award provision in the 2004 re-authorization of the Act. Beginning in 2006, the maximum grant is 40% of APPE times the number of children with disabilities the state served in school year 2004-2005 adjusted by the annual rates of change in the state’s population in the age range comparable to ages for which the state provides FAPE for children with disabilities (85% of the adjustment) and in the state’s children living in poverty in the same age range (15% of the adjustment). In other words, the number of children being served under IDEA in the state has not played a role in calculating the maximum grant award since 2004-2005. Congress made this change in 2004 for the express purpose of removing any fiscal incentive to over identify students as disabled. The maximum grant level allows for the possibility that some funds would be unallocated in years in which IDEA funding rises enough that every state can receive its maximum grant.

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 August 29, 2019.

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