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With the buzz around Washington, D.C. about budget cuts and sequestration, parents and teachers are concerned about federal funding in special education. This blog post will sum up how much funding for special education is actually provided, and what federal budget cuts might mean for children in public school special education programs.
How Much Does Federal Funding Provide for the Education of Children with Disabilities?
The Federal Commitment: An Increasing Concern
The topic of federal funding has been a concern since PL 94-142 (the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) was passed in 1975. Within this law was a promise of major funding for special education: this legislation mandated that 40 percent of all special education funding would be provided by the federal government. While this level of federal funding is still the expressed goal of many, in reality, this funding has not exceeded 17 percent and typically is closer to 11 to 12 percent. This issue became more of a concern when the recent congressional sequestration went into effect and 9.1 percent was taken from the top of all federal funding, including education for children with disabilities.
IDEA is called the largest “unfunded” law ever passed, in that funds were promised, but the amount that has been given has fluctuated and has never reached the level stated in the law. Of course, this might be unfair in that the number of students who were identified as having disabilities far exceeded estimation, and other factors have entered the picture.
What Determines the Level of Funding?
The original promise to provide 40 percent is based on Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the portion of this act that concerns public schools and the grants that will be provided to state and local education agencies to offset part of the cost of the K-12 education needs of children with identified disabilities. The process used to to determine the amount of funding that schools receive is confusing and I don’t want to dwell on the complexity; suffice it to state that the formula used is two parts mechanism, one part desire to maintain what was provided in the past and another part that alters the distribution to satisfy political interest in specific localities and schools. The number of students with identified disabilities determines 85 percent of the allocation, while 15 percent is allocated to students living in poverty.
The History of Federal Funding in Special Education
When PL 94-142 was passed, it was assumed that special education would cost approximately twice as much as general education. Based upon that notion, congress promised it would provide 40 percent of the costs of special education. In 1999, a study re-examined this ratio and discovered that educating a student with a disability cost 1.9 times the general total expenditure of educating a student without disabilities and 2.08 times more in operating costs. In other words, we can assume that the original figure of double the cost is relatively accurate.
At first, Part B funds were provided at the level of eight percent of the estimated costs of special education; this level dropped within the first couple of years, and then steadily grew until 2005 and 2006, when roughly 16 percent of the costs were allocated through the federal budget. In 2007, this level dropped to around 16 percent and remained between 15 percent and 16 percent until the recent sequestration, which took 9.1 percent off this figure (approximately 1 percent of total estimated cost of special education). Thus, about 10 to 11 percent is granted by the federal government to state and local school agencies according to the number of students with disabilities (regardless of economic status), and another four to five percent is allocated to students with disabilities who live in poverty. Thus, if you live in an area with a high percentage of students living in poverty, your local agency will receive about 15 percent of the estimated cost of special education in federal grant money. Conversely, if you live in a wealthy suburb with fewer students living in poverty, your district will receive approximately 10 to 11 percent of the expected expenditure of special education. The remainder of funds for special education comes from state and local sources.
What Does it Mean?
When I was administering special education programs in a local public school agency, our total budget was around $6 million. At that point we were receiving about 11 to 12 percent of this figure in federal funding: $700,000.00 to $750,000.00. Nearly all of the remaining balance was allocated by the state. If we had faced a 9.1 percent sequester decrease in that federal source, it would have cut our federal grant budget in the range of $70,000 to $75,000. That would have been significant. At least 85 percent of schools’ budgets are used for the salaries and benefits of employees; thus, a cut of this size to our budget would have meant that a teacher and an aide would have needed to be cut. Thus, a cut of 9.1 percent to federal funding can hurt, but it certainly will not have a major impact on a school district’s budget.
In a nutshell, this is the nature of the federal funding that your local school or state agency is relying upon: a figure of 11 to 16 percent, depending on the level of poverty. If you want more information, check out http://febp.newamerica.net/background-analysis/individuals-disabilities-education-act-funding-distribution.