Feds turn cold on funding increases for students with disabilities

As summer came to an end, the Congressional enthusiasm for increasing revenues for special education students became a bit chilly last week and in an atmosphere of fiscal restraint, it does not look as if the mood will warm in the near future.

Under a bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last Wednesday, funding for disadvantaged students as well as special education will remain flat for the upcoming fiscal year in spite of a slight, very slight, increase for the U.S. Department of Education from $68.35 billion to $68.43 billion.

Meanwhile, the Combatting Autism Act that sailed through the House of Representatives, requiring only a voice vote, is facing counter prevailing winds in the Senate. The bill, originally passed in 2006, authorized millions for research to improve diagnosis and treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder. No action was taken last year when two senators pushed for reauthorization and it will expire at the end of this month if it is not renewed.

The current status for legislative support for special education, at least in light of the bill moving out to the full senate from the Appropriations Committee, dramatically dampens the optimistic sentiment that was present last summer due to renewed efforts to secure full federal funding for IDEA.

Last July, as Chair for the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, co-sponsored legislation to mandate that the federal government fulfill the goal" set in PL 94-142 (the original incarnation of IDEA) in the late 70s to offset state and local expenses for special education by 40 percent. Then, in August, Congressman Jared Polis, D-Colorado, introduced a similar bill in the House.

Now, as Congress grapples with putting together a new budget before the start of the new fiscal year that begins October 1, Sen. Harkin lamented that the reductions for K-12 education "cut all the fat and went into the bone." Although he insisted the proposed appropriations still will guarantee students the "right to a good education and job skills."

In a similar vein, resistance to the Combatting Autism Act was in direct opposition to the administration's support in favor of renewing the law. Last April, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced, "Unfortunately, as many of you know, the Combatting Autism Act is set to expire this year but we have much more work to do. That's why the president and I are fully committed to reauthorizing... ."

But on the Senate floor last week, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, challenged that sentiment when he said, "All of us who object support autism research ... but it makes absolutely no sense for us from where we sit to try to play scientist and physician."

Meanwhile, the Council for Exceptional Children, the single largest international association for professionals and parents dedicated to advocacy and education for youths with disabilities, recently released a report that states "the poor economy is negatively impacting special education" and then goes on to cite a litany of examples.

The council called upon congress "to reject any legislation that threatens the availability and delivery of services for children and youth with disabilities."