Weighing Special Ed. as a School Choice Option

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The notion of making federal special education funding “portable”—allowing money to follow individual students with disabilities so they can pay for the schools and services they choose—has been on the drawing board in conservative circles for several years.

Now, the idea has at least one well-placed supporter: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who gave the concept a positive mention during a brief exchange at her confirmation hearing.

Much of the media focus during the run-up to DeVos’ razor-thin confirmation focused on her responses to questions about whether the rules of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should apply to all schools that receive federal funds.

Less discussed was her response to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who asked DeVos whether she would do anything to send more special education dollars to the states. “That is an action that would help every single school district in this country,” Collins said.

Determining the amount of money that is allotted for special education is actually the role of Congress, which determines the budgets of individual federal departments. Currently, about $11.9 billion is allocated for special education grants to states. But DeVos said that she would commit to looking into the issue.

“I actually think this is an area that could be considered for an approach that would be somewhat different, in that maybe the money should follow individual students instead of going directly to the states. I think that’s something we could discuss, and I would look forward to discussing with members of this committee,” she said.

Previous Proposals

Such a change would have support among some lawmakers.

Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, introduced a bill called the CHOICE Act that would allow states that already have voucher programs aimed at students with disabilities to add federal special education dollars to them. Currently, 12 of the 26 voucher programs operating nationwide are for students with disabilities. A bill with largely the same provisions has been introduced at least twice before by Republicans.

And, though President Donald Trump did not speak about such issues on the campaign trail, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made IDEA and Title I portability a feature of his education plan when he was the GOP presidential nominee in 2012. Title I is a federal funding stream that supports schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students.

Allowing federal special education money to follow students would be a radical departure from the current funding mechanism, a complex formula that is tied to a state’s overall share of students as well as its population of students in poverty. And if a voucher program were financed only with federal money, each student’s share would be small based on current funding levels: about $1,800 per student for those ages 3 to 21 with disabilities, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.

The Complexity of Special Education Funding

The funding formula for federal special education aid was last adjusted in 1999. That formula, however, has not kept up with population shifts, changes in the number of students with disabilities, or the types of disabilities that students have. Currently, the federal government pays about 16 percent of the cost of educating a student with disabilities, or less than $1,800 per student.

But having a vocal school choice advocate in a leadership position could garner additional consideration for the proposal. In a letter responding to questions from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., DeVos said that parents of students with disabilities need more options.

“Offering parents of students with disabilities the opportunity to choose between a private school, a different public school, or a nonpublic school setting empowers the parents to receive what works best for their child,” she said.

The last time Congress touched special education funding was in 1997, during a reauthorization of the IDEA. (The special education law was also reauthorized in 2004, but the formula for distributing money did not change.) The formula is based on a state’s overall student enrollment and the number of students in poverty. Additional calculations come into play, based on factors such as how much a state received in a previous year or changes in year-to-year federal allocations.

The nearly 20-year-old formula has led to some inequities, according to New America, a Washington-based think tank that investigated it in 2014. Notably, New America found that small districts get proportionally more money per student than larger ones and that districts that are losing enrollment receive more money per student than growing districts.

Another, bigger problem from the perspective of school districts: Congress has never funded special education at the level that is authorized under the IDEA. Back in 1975, Congress said that it would fund special education at up to 40 percent of average per-pupil expenditure in public schools. But the federal contribution is hovering at around 16 percent.

Pushing Back on Portability

Special education funding is due for a re-examination, but unraveling the system through funding portability is not the answer, said Scott Sargrad, the managing director of the K-12 education policy team for Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank.

“This would be a massive shift in IDEA, not just in funding but in the way the program works,” Sargrad said.
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