U.S. Senators propose full-funding of IDEA

After more or less ignoring a commitment made in the mid-1970s to provide 40 percent of the extra costs associated with special education - Congress will soon be considering legislation to fulfill that promise.

The IDEA Full Funding Act, proposed by a coalition of senators led by Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would double the tax on cigarettes and small cigars to pay for the new support.

This bill represents a necessary step for improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities," said Harkin, chair of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"Full funding of IDEA - at no additional cost to the federal government - will provide much-needed relief to already-strapped school districts and fulfill the promise we made 36 years ago to help communities provide a high-quality education to all students," he said in a statement.

Originally titled the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and adopted in 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized in 1990 but with the same intent -- upholding the rights of students with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education. Congress set a goal that federal funds should cover up to 40 percent of the excess cost of educating this population.

Currently, federal funding covers only about 16 percent of the costs - although the total appropriation in 2011 was more than $11.5 billion.

The proposal introduced late last week by Harkin, would gradually increase federal support in annual increments averaging about 2.5 percent through 2020 with a final hike of 6.6 percent coming in 2021.

By the end of the ten-year process, funding would stand at $35.3 billion or roughly 40 percent of the costs.

To provide the new funding, the bill authorizes an increase in the current tax on cigarettes from $1.0066 per pack to $2.01 per pack.

Architects of the bill also argue that with the higher taxes, an estimated 1 million Americans would likely reduce their tobacco use or quit all together and an estimated 2.2 million young people would likely never take up smoking in the first place.

The debate over federal support for special education dates back nearly to the beginning of the program. But according to the U.S. Department of Education, Congress set a maximum target for the federal contribution to special education spending equal to 40 percent of the estimated excess cost of educating children with disabilities.

That's calculated at 40 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure times the number of children with disabilities served in the current school year, adjusted for population changes. The law also maintains that the count of children with disabilities cannot exceed 12 percent of the state's total school population.

Although special education programs nationwide benefitted from a one-time boost of $12 billion from federal economic stimulus in 2008 and 2009, the regular budget for IDEA has fallen every year since 2005 when 18.5 percent of the costs were covered.

As with many other programs, the shortfall in IDEA funding must be made up by either state or local funding.

Joining in as co-sponsors of the bills are senators Richard Durbin, D-IL; Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ; Richard Blumenthal, D-CT; Patty Murray D-WA; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI; Patrick Leahy D-VT; Michael Bennet, D-CO; Al Franken D-MN; Barbara Mikulski, D-MD; Jack Reed, D-RI; Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH; Tim Johnson, D-SD; and Mark Begich, D-AK.

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