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Researchers: federal IDEA funding plan needs to be updated

On Behalf of | Jun 30, 2022 | Education Law

The current formula for providing federal funding for students with disabilities is inequitable and needs to be changed, according to two recent studies. Even if the federal government came through with the $38 billion it owes to states to educate students with disabilities, the researchers argue, the existing funding formula would leave many students with less funding than they actually need.

According to Education Week, there are more than seven million K-12 students in the U.S. who qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These students comprise about 15% of the total K-12 student body in the United States. Yet, while the population of IDEA-eligible students has grown and the cost of services has soared, federal funding remains flat.

The Biden Administration has proposed in its 2023 budget proposal raising the total in federal special education grants to a little more than $16 billion.

The formula for allocating those federal grants to state governments, however, hasn’t been updated in over two decades. Unlike Title I, which allocates the grants directly to school districts, IDEA grants are given to state legislatures.

How are federal special education funds allocated now?

The IDEA grant allocation formula was created in 1999, at a time when lawmakers were concerned that states might be exaggerating the number of students with IDEA-eligible disabilities in order to garner more federal funding. As a result, the funding formula aims for parity among the states rather than attempting to allocate funding based on the actual number of students using the program.

In other words, states like California with a larger proportion of students receiving special education receive less in funding per pupil than states with a smaller proportion of such students. The bigger the need, the more the state is shortchanged under the current formula.

The IDEA guarantees an equal education for students with disabilities

The IDEA is meant to guarantee a fair, appropriate education for every student – even if it costs more to provide that to some students. The IDEA authorizes Congress to contribute up to 40% of the average K-12 funding for every state, but the federal government has never approached that level of funding. That leaves states to make up the difference.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to come to an estimate of how much special education services ought to cost, on average. Such an estimate would make it easier to allocate the right amount to each state, school district, or student.

Researchers studying the issue acknowledge that increasing federal special education funding may be needed. However, if it is to be done equitably, the funding formula needs to be revisited.

Leigh Law Group represents California students in education law cases.