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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Unfulfilled Promise of IDEA

Congress has never come close to meeting its funding obligation under the law it passed to advance the opportunity of students with special needs. Forty years later, students’ futures hang in the balance

By Amanda Litvinov

Special education teacher Vicki Zasadny

The pages of the learn-to-read books in Vicki Zasadny ’s special education classroom are tattered, smudged, and marked. Some of the information is outdated. That’s what happens when textbooks are 15 years old.

The books tell a somber story about the chronic underfunding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Since the law was passed 40 years ago, the federal government has failed to provide even half of the funding it pledged to help schools educate kids with special needs.

Those costs have always been shifted to states and local districts, whose current economies are in various stages of recovery from the financial crisis that kicked off in 2007. In the end, special needs students receive only the materials and services districts can afford.

While students in Western Wyandotte County, Kan., are getting by with outdated books and must contend with ballooning class sizes, their peers in a nearby district—where incomes are higher—receive iPads.

“I thought the federal education programs were meant to help equalize those discrepancies, to help us meet the needs of all students, not just those who live in rich neighborhoods,” says Zasadny, who has taught in Kansas’ schools for 35 years.

The state used to do a better job of making up for the shortfall in federal funds. “We used to have money for updated materials and professional development,” she says. “Now we pretty much have money for paper and pencils.”

Worst of all, two years ago the district was forced to cut paraeducators’ hours by five hours per week, leaving students without their help at the beginning and the end of the day.

Education funding is a sore subject in Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies in the state legislature have stunted the state’s economy by shelling out tax breaks for rich corporations and wealthy individuals while making historic cuts to education spending. When adjusted to account for inflation, spending per student was 16 percent lower in 2014 than in 2008.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last year that the state’s education spending “is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence.” They suggested that spending should be increased by at least $802 per student annually.

Incredibly, Gov. Brownback’s latest budget proposal would instead cut another $44.5 million from the state’s public schools and universities.

Vicki Zasadny says she and her colleagues are working harder than ever and they have the support of her principal, superintendent, and other administrators. But there is only so much any of them can do within the federal and state funding systems. Zasadny says it makes her sad to know that she’s not able to meet the needs of each child the way she once did.

“When we see something like a student unable to make progress in reading, we need to adjust something to help them,” she says.

“But we can’t increase their time in special education without making the classes larger, and we can’t provide more one-on-one attention without more staff. When kids are struggling to the degree that our special education students are, we really should be working with them in groups of three or less, and some kids really need a group of one. But that just doesn’t happen now because we don’t have enough staff or enough hours in the day.”


‘We can’t look away’

Andrew Benton (left) is a Kansas City, Kan., paraeducator who helps students with emotional or behavioral disorders succeed in the general classroom. He helps them stay on task or take notes, and sometimes assists teachers by reviewing a previously taught lesson with a small group still learning the material.

Benton worries about the students with more severe emotional problems. The one who cuts himself on the tape dispenser or hits his head against the wall. The girl who is three years behind in reading. The students who are trying to keep up but have little parental support.

He says each school day is “an adventure,” and that he rarely feels discouraged. His students’ needs motivate him to do more. After the last bell rings, Benton hits the books himself. For several years, he’s been working toward a teaching degree.

“It’s nerve-wracking trying to figure out how I’m going to finance each semester,” he says about having his hours cut two years ago. “So far, I’ve found a way to make it work, whether adding small tutoring jobs after school or taking on student loans.”
Benton is more concerned about how the lack of education funding is affecting his students.

“The state keeps changing standards and the tests that go along with them, but they don’t supply money for updated materials. I’ve worked in schools where they are using the same books we had when I was in school,” Benton says.

“We can’t look away from the fact that these kids’ education would be better if we fully fund IDEA,” Benton says.

The fight for full funding

Before IDEA, U.S. schools educated only one of every five children with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some states had laws that specifically denied education to children who had developmental disabilities or were deaf, blind, or emotionally disturbed. Many of those children would be institutionalized and have no opportunity to be educated.

In 1975, federal lawmakers, with the support of advocacy and family groups, revolutionized how public schools educate special needs kids.

Since then, the majority of children with disabilities have been educated in their neighborhood public schools in the general classroom. Their high school graduation rates, college enrollments, and job opportunities increased dramatically. Today, employment rates for youth served under IDEA are twice those of older adults with similar disabilities who did not have the benefit of IDEA.

But for all the law has accomplished for the students it serves—which is now about 13 percent of all enrolled students, according to the most current data of the National Center for Education Statistics—the federal government’s failure to meet its funding obligation has wreaked havoc on state and local budgets and at times left districts scrambling to meet student needs.

Although Congress committed to paying 40 percent of the average cost to educate a child with disabilities, it has never met even half of that commitment. Currently, the federal share of funding for special education services to approximately 6.9 million students is about 16 percent.

As a result, costs are shifted to the states, forcing school districts to either raise taxes or dip into general education budgets and cut other critical services to make up for the shortfall. The federal cost shift to states in 2014 alone was $17.6 billion (based on data from the U.S. Department of Education Budget Service and the Congressional Research Service).

In January, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) reintroduced the IDEA Full Funding Act on behalf of a bipartisan group of legislators: Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), David McKinley (R-W.V.), Tim Walz (D-Minn.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.). The bill proposes regular increases in IDEA spending that would result in full funding by 2025.

“Four decades is far too long for states and schools to wait for the help that was promised them when Congress enacted IDEA,” says NEA Government Relations Director Mary Kusler. We strongly support the bipartisan effort to meet the noble goal of fully funding IDEA.”

The bill is an attempt to put a spotlight on the crises the federal funding issue has caused. It is not expected to make it out of committee.

“Are we willing to let go of the idea that every child should be educated to the fullest extent possible?” asks Zasadny in frustration. “That would just be catastrophic.”

“The bottom line is that these kids’ education suffer when we decide at the federal or state level that there just isn’t funding to meet their needs,” says Benton.

In February, Benton learned that his position was cut. He has the option to reapply, but will have to absorb a pay cut of roughly $1,500, which is what he intends to do.

“I’m not going anywhere. We don’t have the ideal setup or resources, but every day I will use my experience to help these kids get the best out of what we’ve got.” 

Educators Across the Country Speak Out on IDEA Funding  

Heather Adams
“I work mainly with students with autism. Improper funding typically means less paraeducator support. That can leave special needs kids alone in a class of 30 students. It can mean students with challenging behaviors in a small group with no additional help. It can mean students who are affected by the noise and chaos of the lunchroom enduring those challenges alone. It also may mean no more trainings or workshops for teachers. These are just a few of the reasons proper funding matters!”

Samantha Jarecki
“Federal dollars help keep special education classes smaller, so teachers can give each student more individualized attention. We already have too many students on our caseload to do our very best work, and if we continue to take on more students with no new staff, the quality of our services will further deteriorate.”

Colleen Kirley
“My son has debilitating learning disabilities. If he does not receive appropriate instruction from special education teachers he will not be able to become a productive citizen. Please, lawmakers, provide funding that keeps classes smaller so that those with learning difficulties can be successful.”

Carla Cox
“Many of my students start school with extremely limited self-help and social skills. Teaching them to communicate, to play, and to take care of themselves requires intensive individual instruction. But the rewards are enormous! When you see those students a few years later learning to read, write, count, and do math problems—when they can communicate their needs, when they have friends in their general education classrooms who seek them out on the playground—you know that all that intensive work has been worth every minute and every cent. I wish everyone in Washington could see what I see.”

Kevin McGreer
“I have students who are at a huge disadvantage because of the poverty they were born into. Too many have parents who are in prison or dead, poor diets and spotty after-school care, and a government that appears to care less and less. Lawmakers, come to my classroom, look those children in the eyes, and see if you still can sleep at night knowing that critical federal programs like IDEA are nowhere near fully funded. Our society will be judged by how we help those who need us most.”

Laurie Giddings
“I am saddened nearly every day when I see how much more we ought to be doing in special education and sickened when I meet adult students with disabilities whose outcomes would have turned out better if they had had better services. We can do better than this. Where is our national pride when it comes to educational services for students with disabilities?”

Jason Hammonds
“I have taught preschool/Head Start since 2004. The amount of special needs among our kids continues to rise at an alarming rate. I will never understand why important federal programs for low-income families and kids with special needs continue to be cut or chronically underfunded. Those who hold the purse strings should come visit our preschool/Head Start classrooms.”

Michele Pratt
“Children are coming to school with reduced language abilities and teachers are struggling to educate children delayed abilities to attend, problem solve, follow directions, and understand basic concepts. Class sizes are growing, adding to these concerns. If our legislators truly want to see American children educated, they have got to visit classrooms, talk with teachers and paraprofessionals, and understand the needs we manage daily.”

Double Funding Whammy

 Click here to see the 10 states that were shorted the most by the federal government on IDEA funding. 

Show members of Congress how much they’re shorting students—send an IDEA invoice.

Encourage your representatives in Washington to fulfill the promise of IDEA! Go to to send them an invoice for the portion of special education funding the government failed to send your state this school year. You’ll also find graphics you can share on social media, so people in your networks can help support the cause. 


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