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 – 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 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.)

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. 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 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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