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Home » Archives » June 2005 » Special Report: History of Special Education & IDEA

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06/23/2005: "Special Report: History of Special Education & IDEA"

What is it & How Did We Get From There To Here?

By Jack McKenna

Last week in a meeting with Superintendent Michael Soltman, school district employees learned that a single special needs student will cost our district hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years with little chance of help from the federal government. Yet it is a federal mandate that requires the San Juan Island School District to shoulder this burden. Across the nation, thousands of school districts big and small are cutting basic services to provide for similar special needs students. How did this happen?

In 1975, Congress passed the Special Education and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This legislation formally extends to children with disabilities the right to a free, quality public education. No one can fault the spirit of this legislation, yet the San Juan School District's financial challenges are representative of a national crisis caused by IDEA.

In short, Congress has broken its promise to fund these services, and as a consequence there are some truly frightening statistics locally and nationally.
Here are the essentials of the problem:
There is a mandated federal requirement to serve special education students.
The costs of meeting this mandate have escalated without limit.
There is an expanding population of qualifying students.
There are highly organized advocacy groups using the justice system to obligate local districts.
Congress has not funded its mandate leaving the costs to states and districts.


At the core of the problem with IDEA is the fact that Congress votes on laws and money separately. The IDEA law includes a federal commitment to pay 40% of the costs of special education. But federal appropriation

Since 1974, the disparity between what Congress is required by their own law to pay and what they actually pay is over $300,000,000,000. This entire shortfall has been made up through cuts to other programs at the state and local level. Although we are very conscious of this impact now because of our one student, our district has had to use significant amounts of basic education money all along to pay for this federal mandate.

From the point of view of students needing services, the law has been successful. Six million students are receiving services under this law across the nation. This is a vast improvement since 1974. Although expensive, providing special education students with good service is far cheaper to society as a whole than dealing later with the consequences of not educating these children, including the costs of addiction, early pregnancy, crime, incarceration, institutionalization, health care, welfare and homelessness. Local public schools are now educating millions of disabled children, and a growing number of them are graduating from high school. Only three decades ago, these same children would have been isolated, placed in separate institutions or simply kept at home with little or no chance of ever becoming independent, productive, taxpaying citizens.
Since the initial passage of the law twenty-three ago, the public school community has pressured Congress to fully fund this mandate. When the bill was reauthorized in 2004, it received only qualified support from educators. The new version did address some of the paperwork, professional development, early intervention, and discipline issues that needed fixing, but full funding was again omitted. Public school interest groups continue to push hard for full funding. As a result, in raw dollars allocated, the federal support for the law has steadily increased.

Yet, Congress is not even close to fully funding the mandate for two reasons:

First, many more students qualify for services than in the past. For example, far more addicted women are giving birth to neurologically damaged children.

Second, the vast numbers of students who qualify for services but receive none have caused the rise of family founded advocacy organizations. In just our Congressional District (#2 Rick Larson) the disparity between requested funds and authorized funds is $6,910,000 annually. The National Education Association estimates that in our Congressional District there are 3,516 unserved students, each one a potential lawsuit. Statewide, the number is estimated at about 31,000 unserved students.

Over the years advocacy organizations have developed cadres of lawyers whose entire careers are focused on this one issue. Because these children actually do qualify for services, it is not possible for any district to avoid incurring substantial drains on its local basic education budget in support of these under funded but federally mandated services.

As we have learned, appropriate placement for some of these students is very expensive. The Center for Special Education Research at the request of the Department of Education did a detailed analysis of the school year 1999-2000 and part of their work looked at the impact of the most expensive 5% and the most expensive 1% of special education students. The information in the report is startling to say the least. While you read this, keep in mind the additional lawsuits that will be generated by the No Child Left Behind law, an additional unfunded federal mandate that requires every single child in a district to graduate from high school at a proficiency level set by the state (WASL).

In the school year 1999-2000 the average expenditure for a student receiving no Special Education dollars was $6,500.00

In that same year, average expenditure for a Special Education student in the top 5% was $35,924.00

The average expenditure for Special Education students in the top 1% was $88,966.00 per student.

We can extrapolate that the top 1% of Special Education students cost the nation over four billion dollars that year.

In that same year, the high expenditure high school special education students averaged 5.6 grades behind in reading, and 6.1 grades behind in math.

The heartbreaking question this data highlights is this: At what point is the interest of society as a whole better served by less service for some students? Is this the educational version of the missile defense shield a laudable goal that is technically unachievable no matter how much money is thrown at it?

No one wants to directly address this question, not the educational community, not Congress, and not anyone with compassion for families in this situation. After all, each of these kids is a specific person, with hopes and dreams to fulfill. Yet the question must be answered, and if in our collective wisdom we continue to spare no expense, then the staggering cost must be spread out over the entire society, and that means the federal government will have to pony up a lot more than the 40% current target.

There is some potential good news: a coalition of special interest groups has organized nationally in support of full funding of IDEA. Members include the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Speech Language and Hearing Association, the Council for Exceptional Children, the Great City Schools Association, National Association of Elementary Principals, National Association of Secondary Principals, National Association of State Special Education Directors, PTA, and the National School Boards Association.

The proposal calls for:
Mandatory federal funding at the 40% required by the law;
Increases to be phased in over six years;
States to maintain their current contributions;
More focus on early intervention when most gains are possible.

The Senate passed a bill containing a version of this proposal last year on a unanimous voice vote and the House has 120 bipartisan members who have sponsored bills with various versions. Additionally, thirty-five state legislatures have passed resolutions urging Congress to act. This may be the year Congress finally starts to face its responsibility.

Although the proposed legislation is good for the future, our need is not in six years, and not only 40% coverage - we need help now. I think at least letters to Congress, the Governor and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction are in order from each of us. A doctor discussing treatment options with a patient does not obligate the hospital to pay. That is left to the individual or insurance company. It would be absurd for Blue Cross to offer its customers blanket coverage for 100% of all appropriate healthcare costs and then require Group Health subscribers to pay for it. Congress has issued a "policy" that insures public schools pay for all educational needs of all students. The "company" that issues the policy needs to pay the claim or change the policy.

Jack McKenna is the Griffin Bay School's Lead Teacher. The Griffin Bay School is a part of the San Juan Island School District

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