Friday, March 07, 2014


by Lee Funk, SI&A Cabinet Report :: The Essential Resource for Superintendents and the Cabinet 

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

The ones you can see over there,answered his master, with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.

Now look, your grace,said Sancho, what you see over there aren't giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.

Obviously,replied Don Quijote, you don't know much about adventures.”

Salvador Dali

― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

March 7, 2014  ::  Demonstrating that the spirit of Cervantes lives on, the National Council on Disability and a bipartisan group of 130 members of Congress urged support for full federal funding of special education in advance of the administration’s release of the proposed 2015 budget earlier this week.

Of windmills and full funding of IDEAOnce again it seems, the windmill won – neither the 2014 budget nor President Barack Obama’s spending plan for the succeeding year moved the dial.

When Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 (which upon renewal in the 1990s became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) legislators made a commitment to pick up 40 percent of the excess cost for special education. That percentage – commonly referred to as “full funding” for special education was to be phased in over five years to become a reality in 1981.

But to date, the federal government has never picked up more than 18.5 percent of the tab. Almost 40 years after the fact, neither successive congressional bodies nor administrations have fulfilled the original promise – not even half way.

The 2014 federal budget deal signed in December, fell short of meeting that long standing goal. Even with an increase of $500 million over the 2013allocation, because sequestration was in effect that year, current funding is below the amount allocated in 2012. So there is the appearance of forward motion when, in fact, there is actual slippage.

Obama’s newest budget proposal doesn’t improve on it much – adding $100 million to this year’s allocation. But, on a per student basis, that’s just $17 more. In fact the plan places the federal share at 16 percent, still two points below the peak.

This week, a bipartisan group in the U.S. House of Representatives – which includes Jared Huffman, D-CA, and Chris Gibson, R-N.Y. – proposed boosting federal spending on IDEA over time to meet the 40 percent benchmark. While laudable, given the political landscape, this bill, too, is reminiscent of a man from La Mancha.

What’s necessary is sustained pressure. This effort will require more than letters, or congressional testimony, or speeches. It will require full-scale political action involving electioneering, lobbying, petitions, even law suits.

IDEA is sound in principle, fostering the highest educational ideals of a democratic country, and despite its cost, Congress needs to honor its commitment.

Based on a study by the Center for Special Education Finance, adjusting for inflation, the comparative cost for educating a student with disabilities today is over two and one-half times the expense of a pupil in the standard program.

The shortfall on the part of the federal government is over $13 billion. That’s money that could be used to decrease class size, refurbish failing infrastructures, or provide intervening services that would broaden access to the core curriculum to keep students off the separatist path of special education in the first place.

To paraphrase the captain in Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is an unfunded mandate.”

For decades there was a similar problem in California. The state legislature required additional services on the part of local districts without allocating the funds to cover the costs. Then in 1979 the voters passed a proposition amending the California Constitution to the subvention of funds to reimburse cities, counties, and school districts for additional costs required by new legislation.

That change came about because municipalities and educational agencies formed a coalition with citizen groups to substantially reform the funding sources associated with centralized mandates.

A grass roots movement of the same sort may be necessary to get the attention of Congress when it comes to fully funding IDEA. The same advocacy organizations that long ago spearheaded the omnibus special education bill forever changing the way services are delivered for students with disabilities needs to unite with school board members, administrators, and state educational agencies to change IDEA from authorizing funding at 40 percent to requiring funding at that level.

It is time that advocates and school officials stop squabbling among themselves for the crumbs tossed about by Washington as an afterthought following a failed promise and marshal their efforts to prompt lawmakers to abide by their original pledge.

To allude to another movie, it is time to force, not ask, Congress and the President to “do the right thing.”

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