Special education law in need of an overhaul

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.

But largely because the base year hasn't been updated in well over a decade, federal dollars available per child vary widely by state. In fact, districts that have seen declining enrollment since 1999 receive consistently higher per child IDEA funding from the federal government than other districts in the state. That's because a significant portion of their funds are based on 15-year-old data, so they're splitting a number of dollars similar to what they received back then across fewer students. Accordingly, districts with increasing enrollment have consistently lower funding per child.

The disparities are severe, especially in some states. In Arkansas, per child funding is more than 21 percent higher for districts where populations have shrunk since 1999. In Idaho, it's nearly twice as much. In Texas, growing districts receive $168 per child, on average; districts with shrinking populations receive $221 per child — a nearly 32 percent difference.

Those inequities across and within states are made even more severe by a familiar version of legislative pork: the small-state minimum. In this case, it's actually a minimum award applied across all states, with a maximum award size factored in, as well. But many small states and school districts consequently receive more federal funding per child than they otherwise would. For example, in South Dakota, the average per child IDEA allocation totals $234; in Montana, it's $268; and in Wyoming, $275. Meanwhile, larger states receive far less funding per child: $208 in North Carolina; $190 in Oregon; and $188 in Georgia.

The fact that states are receiving such inequitable IDEA allocations to afford education for one of the country's most vulnerable populations should serve as evidence that lawmakers need to take action to update and revise the formula and rid it of those disparities. States and local school districts are on the hook for the remainder of the costs — a major burden, given that the federal government covered only about 10 percent of all national spending on special education at last count. That means it should be up to the federal government to ensure it's spending its relatively few dollars carefully and smartly. So far, members of Congress have only had one thing to say in response to demands for a revamped IDEA, though: Get in line.

McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Follow her @claremccann.

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