Special Education is in need of an overhaul. There’s a ton of money involved and, more importantly, the quality of the education of students with and without disabilities is at stake.

Like all other education, special ed is administered and funded largely at the local and state levels. However, for special ed the federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is the primary ruling piece of legislation.

IDEA drives the policy but accounts for less than 10 percent of the funding, the rest coming from state and local governments. There’s a very complex funding formula that’s like a gumbo of past funding levels mixed with state’s overall student populations and special ed populations stirred in with poverty rates and spiced with “hold harmless” provisions for smaller states so they aren’t trampled on by the big boys in our complex federalist/state rights system.

I know there are some people who understand it. We have some of them right here in New Jersey. I know some of them and they certainly seem like they know what they are talking about. But they can’t explain it so anybody else can understand it. I know. I’ve listened hard and read a lot. I can get some of it but most of it reads like something out of the German author Franz Kafka, who wrote about how easy it is to get lost in our own complexities.

I stumbled across an analysis of special education recently from a group called New America.


They offer good insight into how funding and policy legislation has stagnated lately at the federal level and how that stagnation has led to wide varieties in special education programs across the states. It’s worth a look but what stood out for me at first glance, for this blog post, was how much the weight of the law’s complex formulas and layering was contributing to the bogging down. Just one paragraph lifted out of the report shows what I mean.

“If Congress appropriates funding that exceeds or matches the amount provided in the prior fiscal year, the awards are made according to a separate funding formula. Every state is guaranteed at least the amount it received in the prior year under §611 of Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, any funds Congress appropriates above its fiscal year 1999 appropriation are distributed on the basis of both population and poverty. It uses the same formula as in the 1997 version of the law: Eighty-five percent of the funds are distributed according to each state’s relative share of all children ages 3 through 21, and the remaining 15 percent are awarded according to each state’s relative share of those children living in poverty. To determine the poverty level, the Department of Education uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau.26”.

It goes on to say in the next sentence: “The system is not as simple as it sounds.”

Oh really.

When public policy becomes too convoluted for anyone but an elite group of experts to understand it becomes private policy. That has happened a lot in federal and state laws and policy initiatives. None more so than special education.

We don’t really overhaul laws anymore. Probably never did. Read the opening few pages of Bleak House by Charles Dickens to get a description of what happens when you pile updates on top of older updates and laws upon laws. It begins to look like buildings in the Old Bailey section of 19th Century London with its mass of convoluted structures and winding alleyways.

It is hard enough to get new legislation passed. The specter of trying to monkey around with existing laws, especially ones as complex as those around special education, with all the sacred cows and entrenched interests, is daunting. It almost makes the stagnation is understandable.

But not acceptable. There’s too much at stake.

When our public discourse is not plain spoken it is too easy to hide things select groups want to insert but don’t want anybody else to know about. In the case of funding and policy legislation it usually means that one constituency is going to get to keep what they have or have it expended and another is going to lost something or continue to be left out.

Politicians don’t like to plainly ask for sacrifice or admit to favors.

For instance, at least as far as I can understand it, federal funding, which seems to drive state and local policies in special education, still rewards over classification. The more kids you say you have that need special ed services the more money you get for those services.

That makes sense on one level but many thoughtful professionals and advocates believe that over classification is not only bad for students but drain much needed resources, ensuring finite dollars are best spent in the best ways.

Nearly 60 percent of all special ed students are classified as having learning disabilities and speech and language impairments. Minorities have long been disproportionately classified into special ed classes. Many funding decisions at the state level are also based on “need” and so there are local district incentives to bolster those numbers come appropriations lobbying. However unconscious or well-meaning these decisions are they are bad for the students misclassified and bad for the others students as well in terms of balances in funding distribution.

Need is certainly a legitimate criteria for any activity. Fiscal and policy experts in and out of government have been working to balance these concern. But as so often happens, new ideas have been layered on top of the more outmoded ones. As with many complex laws there has been no major effort at a comprehensive overhaul. Even an investment in a cleaning up IDEA for language and duplications, provisions that directly contradict each other and ones that apply to outmoded philosophies would be helpful.

Congress has still not reauthorized IDEA, languishing in that limbo since 2009. I think in part it’s because of that complexity plus the political paralysis.  It is too much the tackle and so nothing is done.

Major reforms are hard work. They’ve become too scary to contemplate. Like dredging you never know what’s coming up. Nobody’s ever happy about the end result. Look what happened with the Simpson Bowles Commission report on the overall federal budget, balancing revenues and expenditures. Everybody wanted it to be everybody else who compromised and sacrificed—not them and their constituents.

The haves want to keep what they have and the have nots keep getting a shorter end. Until we decide that we are going to fully fund broad societal initiatives, like special education—which had never been fully funded according to the formulas—this will be the case. And unless we agree to take on a comprehensive, objective, critical assessment of the efficiency of the whole system and ask people who are getting too much to give back so that people who are getting too little can be better served, it will break the bank.

In the meantime, there are millions of students out there and many more millions of parents who simply want the kind of educational experience for their children we have already determined is a societal obligation to provide. And that societal commitment seems to be pretty universal, certainly in the abstract (local tax grumbling singles and seniors notwithstanding). Admittedly, those experiences will be vastly different with vastly different outcomes; and should be. But they can and should be founded on the simple overarching concept of offering a free and appropriate for our children.

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Disability in Focus