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Children With Disabilities Continue to Suffer From Congress' 46-Year Failure to Comply With IDEA

The federal government has yet to uphold its 1975 passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and it appears unlikely that it plans to change that any time soon.

Mike Ervin

 by The Progressive

Here's another one of my quizzes that's worth zero points:

In 1975, the landmark federal legislation now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into law. It guarantees a free and appropriate public education for all children with disabilities. IDEA has made a major positive impact on the lives of generations of disabled Americans. 

Before IDEA, school districts sometimes refused to educate children with disabilities or sent us home tutors or segregated us away in "special" schools with inferior curricula. Now school districts have an obligation to provide disabled students with the services and supports they need to succeed.

IDEA also guarantees that the federal government will cover 40% of the cost of educating disabled kids.

So today's question is, in what year did the federal government actually start paying that 40%?

a) 1977

b) 1985

c) 1999

d) 2020

Actually, this is a trick question, because the correct answer is never. After all of these years, the federal government still has never complied with its own law and provided the promised 40% share of educating these kids. The closest it has come is 33% in 2009, but that was a short-lived burst of generosity. Since then, the IDEA funding level has fallen steadily.

In November 2021, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, and Representative Jared Huffman, Democrat of California, reintroduced the IDEA Full Funding Act. According to Van Hollen's office, total federal IDEA funding currently stands at only 15.7%. The bill would require increases in IDEA funding every fiscal year until it finally reaches 40% in Fiscal Year 2031. 

The key word here is "reintroduced." Van Hollen and other senators have tried in several previous sessions of Congress to pass bills that would gradually increase federal IDEA funding levels over several years until 40% is reached once and for all. But none of these attempts have gotten anywhere, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in the majority in the House or Senate.

When it comes to disregard for fulfilling the promise of IDEA, Congress has been remarkably bipartisan. If Congress had passed and obeyed the version of the IDEA Full Funding Act that was introduced in 2011, the 40% level would have been reached in Fiscal Year 2021.

The current Fiscal Year 2022 federal budget provides $16 billion in IDEA funding, which is more than $2 billion greater than the previous year, but that's still not even half the funds needed to provide the 40% reimbursement to school districts called for in the Act.

So the correct answer to today's quiz is unlikely to change any time soon. By not fully funding IDEA, Congress gives the many school districts that are reluctant to accommodate kids with disabilities ammunition to disparage IDEA with the worn-out old insult of "unfunded mandate."

It seems that when Congress fails to comply with the IDEA law it passed forty-six years ago, there are no consequences—except, of course, for children with disabilities.

© 2021 The Progressive
Mike Ervin

Mike Ervin

Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago. He blogs at Smart Ass Cripple, "expressing pain through sarcasm since 2010."

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