Not too long ago, students with disabilities were not guaranteed the right to attend public schools. In fact, many were turned away because of their disabilities. Today, however, students with disabilities are in every public school and in most classrooms across the country. More importantly, the majority of all students with disabilities spend most of their time (more than 80% of the day) in general education classrooms. And a higher number than ever before are graduating from high school and enrolling in college. Though we have a long way to go before our education system ensures every student reaches his full potential, the tremendous progress we’ve made over the last few decades is due in large part to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  

What is IDEA?

IDEA was passed in the 1970s to provide a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities. This means that the school district will find students in need of special education and provide them with the services and supports they need at no cost to their parents. IDEA serves nearly six million students from birth through high school graduation (or age 21).

What is Full Funding of IDEA and Why is it important?

When Congress passed IDEA, they promised to cover 40% of the extra cost of special education. In other words, they would pay for nearly half of the additional cost required to educate students with disabilities (when compared to the cost per student without disabilities). Unfortunately, Congress has never come close to fulfilling that promise. The number of students with disabilities served under IDEA has increased by 25 percent in the past two decades. Yet, the IDEA state grant program was only funded at around $12 billion in 2017. The federal government is only covering 14.6% of the additional cost.

Why invest in IDEA?

When Congress fails to uphold its end of the bargain, schools suffer. Here’s why:

  • Programs that benefit all students are likely to be cut.  Each year that Congress fails to meet its 40% promise, districts are forced to pay a higher proportion of the special education cost. Schools and districts have been facing budget cuts for years and there is a scarcity of resources in many of our nation’s schools.  As a result, districts are forced to make hard decisions about which programs to fund. Schools and districts are sometimes forced to divert funds from programs that serve all students (including students with disabilities) into IDEA. This should not be a choice schools and districts are forced to make.
  • It becomes harder to recruit and retain qualified teachers. Over time, as districts are forced to put more funds into IDEA, they are unable to use those funds to increase teacher salary, decrease class size, or update classroom resources. The continual funding crisis makes it hard for schools to invest in the types of activities that will bring in and retain the best teachers.
  • Our schools cannot thrive until students with disabilities succeed. It has long been proven that including students with disabilities in our general education classrooms benefits all students — those with and without disabilities. When schools focus on the success of students with disabilities, the school as a whole thrives. Until they have the resources they need from the federal government to fully fund IDEA, schools will continue to struggle to provide the comprehensive and high-quality services that students with disabilities deserve.

How can we fix it?

To address the problem of underfunding of IDEA and take the burden off districts and states, Members of Congress can pass a bill that would fully fund IDEA at the 40% level that Congress originally promised. For example, in 2017, the House IDEA Full Funding Act (H.R. 2902) was introduced by Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA), David McKinley (R-WV), Tim Walz (D-MN), Dave Reichert (R-WA), Kurt Schrader (D-OR), and John Katko (R-NY).  The Senate IDEA Full Funding Act (S. 2542) was introduced on March 13, 2018 by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jon Tester (D-MT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Bob Casey (D-PA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Maggie Hassan (D-NH). If passed, these bills could have provided a glidepath to fully funding IDEA, which means they would have increased federal funding each year over a number of years until full funding is achieved.

How can you support IDEA full funding?

There are a number of ways you can get involved and urge Congress to meet its 40% promise. To learn about your state’s shortfall, go to The Advocacy Institute’s IDEA Money Watch. Then, to ask Congress to invest more in federal education, send an action alert.

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