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Education Bill Moves Forward, Mandatory Special Education Funding Left Behind

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"Congress did the right thing in passing IDEA 25 years ago. Today we are calling on Congress to again do the right thing, to fully fund the commitment Congress made to this program and to the people of this country . . . This amendment will give local education authorities and taxpayers the ability to spend these funds as they see fit to fulfill their own education needs. They could hire more teachers, build new schools, and increase the technology in their schools . . . This amendment will help our teachers and our State and local officials to provide the best education possible for our young people. That should be our goal."

This week, Congress will vote on an agreement reached on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The way was cleared when the conference committee rejected a very controversial, but very important vote to the education community, on a key bipartisan amendment offered by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE). The Harkin-Hagel amendment was intended to guarantee the original funding level promised to states in the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Although the amendment was agreed to by Senate conferees 16 to 9, House conferees rejected the amendment 8 to 6 and killed its chances.

Twenty-Five Years of an Unfulfilled Promise:

Before 1975, only one-fifth of all children with disabilities received a formal education. At that time, many states had laws that specifically excluded many children with disabilities, including children who were blind, deaf, or emotionally disturbed, from receiving such an education. In 1975, Congress passed what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to help states provide all disabled children a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

At that time, Congress promised to provide 40 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure for each disabled child served. However, even with large increases in funding over the last five years, the federal portion of IDEA funds has never exceeded 15 percent. The Harkin-Hagel amendment was intended to ensure that States would receive the amount originally promised in 1975.

The Harkin-Hagel amendment would increase funding for IDEA in annual increments of $2.5 billion until the full 40 percent federal commitment is met in fiscal year 2007. In a Senate floor statement, Sen. Hagel explained the reasoning behind the amendment:

“Congress did the right thing in passing IDEA 25 years ago. Today we are calling on Congress to again do the right thing, to fully fund the commitment Congress made to this program and to the people of this country . . . This amendment will give local education authorities and taxpayers the ability to spend these funds as they see fit to fulfill their own education needs. They could hire more teachers, build new schools, and increase the technology in their schools . . . This amendment will help our teachers and our State and local officials to provide the best education possible for our young people. That should be our goal.”

Senate conferees’ vote on Harkin-Hagel amendment: 16 to 9 in favor:

Voting in Favor of the IDEA Amendment: Voting Against the Amendment:
Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN) Sens. Wayne Allard (R-CO)
Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) Christopher Bond (R-MO)
Hillary Clinton (D-NY) Mike DeWine (R-OH)
Christopher Dodd (D-CT) John Ensign (R-NV)
John Edwards (D-NC) Mike Enzi (R-WY)
Tom Harkin (D-IA) Bill Frist (R-TN)
James Jeffords (I-VT) Judd Gregg (R-NH)
Edward Kennedy (D-MA) Tim Hutchinson (R-AR)
Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)
Patty Murray (D-WA)
Jack Reed (D-RI)
Paul Wellston (D-MN)
Susan Collins (R-ME)
Pat Roberts (R-KS)
John Warner (R-VA)

House conferees’ vote on the Harkin-Hagel Amendment: 8 to 6 against:

Voting in Favor of the IDEA Amendment: Voting Against the Amendment:
Reps. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) Reps. John Boehner (R-OH)
Dale Kildee (D-MI) Michael Castle (R-DE)
George Miller (D-CA) Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
Patsy Mink (D-HI) Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
Major Owens (D-NY) Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA)
Tim Roemer (D-IN) Thomas Petri (R-WI)
Marge Roukema (R-NJ)
Van Hilleary (R-TN)

Guaranteed Funding for IDEA Would Have Come at a Crucial Time:

Full funding of IDEA would not only have fulfilled the federal government’s promise from 1975, it would have freed up more money for states in other areas. In the past, states were forced to pick up the slack for federal funding of IDEA by taking funds away from other important priorities. Full funding of IDEA would have allowed them to use their savings to hire more teachers, build new classrooms, or purchase new technology for all children.

Making IDEA funding mandatory also would have freed up more money in the appropriations process for other programs, such as Title I, a program that Congress has also failed to fully fund since its enactment thirty-six years ago. By moving IDEA funding to the mandatory side of the federal budget, billions of dollars would have been freed up in the appropriations bill. This would have allowed Congress to help both special education needs and help economically and educationally disadvantaged students.

The Harkin-Hagel IDEA amendment was rejected at a time when state education budgets are facing an estimated $11.3 billion cut nationwide, according to a recent report by the Democratic staff of the House and Senate Education Committees. These cuts will come in the form of teacher layoffs, technology cut backs, the elimination of teacher training, the postponement of school modernization, and an increase in class size in many states.

Sponsors of the amendment and members of the Education Committees vowed to revisit mandatory special education funding when IDEA is reauthorized next year.

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