Special education law in need of an overhaul

Lauren Williams's picture
Monday, July 28, 2014

By the time the 113th Congress winds down, lawmakers will have passed precisely one (the Workforce Investment Act) of more than half a dozen pieces of education legislation overdue for reauthorization. Languishing on that list for the last few years has been the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees students with disabilities the right to an education and promises states some money with which to pay for that education.

According to new research, though, that promise does not hold true across the board. In my recent report, Federal Funding for Students with Disabilities: The Evolution of Federal Special Education Finance in the U.S., I dug into federal funding for students with disabilities and found that children in some states have access to fewer federal dollars. In large part, that's thanks to Congress's willingness to postpone updates to the law.

Federal IDEA grants are awarded to states based on a formula. First, each state is awarded the amount they received in fiscal 1999. The base dollars come from a now-defunct formula, based on the number of children with disabilities identified within the state. That means that base funding levels are directly connected to the state's size: a larger student population meant a larger number of children with disabilities. Then any remaining dollars — about 63 percent of the total $11.5 billion pot — are distributed based on each state's share of the total population ages 3 to 21 (85 percent of the funds), rather than of students identified as requiring special education; and the other 15 percent of the leftover dollars is distributed based on each state's share of children living in poverty.

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