A Tale of Betrayal and Hypocrisy


By Joe Batory


Posted May 12, 2006


In 1975, the Congress of the United States passed sweeping legislation that guaranteed full access to the benefits of the public education system for all students with disabilities. This 31 year old federal law (currently known at the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA) represents American ideals at the highest, inclusion and equality for what had once been our nation’s most disenfranchised citizens.  With the inception of IDEA in 1975, one million children previously kept at home or in institutions were brought into the public school system.  Later amendments increased the scope of IDEA to include infants and pre-school children.  


As the Congress knew full well when it passed this legislation, the costs to public schools would be substantial and so the federal government made a promise to appropriate 40% of the cost of IDEA each year.  Unfortunately, this commitment of elected officials was “shaky” at best and has produced a tale of federal government betrayal and hypocrisy.


For decades, Congress has never come close to its promise to fund 40% of the annual cost of the student services associated with this expensive law.  Instead, school districts and state governments have had to pay huge sums of their locally generated tax revenues for a federal law that has never been subsidized at the designated 40% of its cost by the government that enacted it.


The National Education Association has estimated that the current average cost per student for public schools across America is $7552.  For a special education pupil, add $9369 per pupil for an average cost of $16921.  It is simply unfair to local school districts and state governments and their taxpayers that the federal government is not paying its yearly fair share of 40% of the cost for these worthwhile services to students in need.


The latest available figures on this travesty reveal that in 2004, public schools across the nation should have received $21.5 billion from the federal government as its 40% share of the expenses for 6.7 million students receiving services for disabilities covered by IDEA.  However, for that year, public schools received just over $10 billion from the feds.


Over the 31 years that IDEA has been law, public school districts have been shortchanged more than $300 billion of the federal government fair share for special education students.  This impact has been devastating as more and more local revenue for general school needs has often been diverted from basic education needs --- instructional materials, innovative programs, additional teachers, remedial programs, technology enhancement, “state of then art” staff training, and building renovation --- to pay for the 40% portion of IDEA costs that should have been funded by the Congress of the United States. 


Currently, some 35 states have passed resolutions urging the Congress to fulfill its 40% annual funding promise for IDEA.  Just about every education organization in the country is on record arguing for the federal government to honor this commitment.  And the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and the National Governors Association are formally in support of this request.


So where is the conscience and the moral fiber of the Congress?  Ironically, so many of these elected officials have been elected on their lip service to morality, honor and values. And yet the Congress of which they are members has a 31 year record of abdicating its responsibility concerning its own federal commitment to fund 40% of the IDEA costs.



Recently, funding bills calling for full 40% IDEA funding have been introduced in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives.  But whether or not the majority of our federal elected officials will have the courage to finally do the right thing remains to be seen.


(Joseph P. Batory resides at The Philadelphian and is the author of three books on school leadership.)



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