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The 2013 U.S. budget fails to fulfill the promise to fund IDEA

5 Apr

Part of President Obama’s platform when he was campaigning 4 years ago was to fully fund the Federal commitment to special education. On average, a special education student requires about twice the funding as a regular education student. The Federal government made a commitment to pay states 40% of the costs of special education, but has never lived up to that commitment. Typically, the Federal contribution to IDEA is about 17%.

When he campaigned, Mr. Obama’s platform included “Fully Funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act”:

Fully Funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Barack Obama has been a strong and consistent advocate for fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Congress promised to shoulder 40 percent of each state’s “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities, but it has never lived up to this obligation. Currently, the federal government provides less than half of the promised funding (17 percent). Children are being shortchanged, and their parents are forced to fight with cash-strapped school districts to get the free and appropriate education the IDEA promises their children. Fully funding IDEA will provide students with disabilities the public education they have a right to, and school districts will be able to provide services without cutting into their general education budgets. In addition to fully funding IDEA, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will ensure effective implementation and enforcement of the Act.

The 2011 proposed budget by Mr. Obama had this language (as I noted in 2010):

The $12.8 billion request for Special Education programs focuses on improving educational and early intervention outcomes for children with disabilities. For the Grants to States program, the Administration is requesting $11.8 billion, an increase of $250 million over the 2010 appropriation, to maintain the Federal contribution toward meeting the excess cost of special education at about 17 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure (APPE), and provide an estimated average of $1,750 per student for about 6.7 million children ages 3 through 21. Funding for the Grants for Infants and Families and Preschool Grants programs would be maintained at their 2010 levels

Which kept funding levels at about the same 17%, not the 40% level committed

For the 2013 budget, Mr. Obama proposes:

Increase Funding for the Education of Children with Disabilities. The Budget provides $11.6 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Grants to States to provide a high quality education and help offset State and local education costs for children with disabilities. The Budget also provides a $20 million, or 5 percent, increase for the IDEA Infants and Families Program to provide the youngest children a good start. In addition, the Budget provides $30 million, a $28 million increase over 2012, for PROMISE (Promoting Readiness of Minors in SSI), a four agency joint pilot program, to fund and evaluate innovative approaches to improving outcomes of children receiving Supplemental Security Income and their families.

Yes, $11.6B. Less than the 2011 budget amount of $11.8B and, again, not the 40% of the campaign promise.

The intent of special education legislation has always included Federal funding for the states. What we now call IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act) started out as the “Education For All Handicapped Children Act“, which, itself, is the short name for the bill. The full name for the bill was: “A bill to provide financial assistance to the States for improved educational services for handicapped children.” Pretty clear there.

But congress gave themselves an out. Two outs, really. The summary of the bill states:

Education for All Handicapped Children Act – Extends the provisions of the Education of the Handicapped Act through fiscal year 1977 and authorizes appropriations for such years.

And there you see one of the “outs” the government has with not paying their full commitment. The law “authorizes appropriations”. In other words, they give themselves permission to add it to the budget–but they don’t *require* that it be added to the budget. It’s common language (as I recall, “authorizing appropriations” is in the Combating Autism Act as well).

Here’s the second “out” the legislature used. In the original version of the bill (House Resolution 7217) the law read:

Provides that the Commissioner of Education shall, in accordance with provisions of the Education of the Handicapped Act, make payments to State educational agencies for grants made for assistance in providing full educational opportunity to all handicapped children. States that such allotments shall be in an amount equal to the product of the number of handicapped children in the school district of the local educational agency who are enrolled in programs of free appropriate public education meeting the criteria established in this Act, and 50 percent of the average per pupil expenditure in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States.

They were going to pay 50% of the cost of special education. (special education funding is about twice that of regular education. So by granting the states an additional 50% per special ed student, they are paying 1/2 the funding difference). But the House version of the law was tabled in favor of the senate law

States that the maximum amount of the grant to which a State is entitled under such Act shall equal the number of handicapped children aged three to twenty-one, who are receiving special education in such State, multiplied by a percentage of the average per pupil expenditure in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Increases such percentage from 5 to 40 percent by 1982.

While the law is promoted as committing to ramp up the Federal contribution to 40%, congress only committed themselves to a “maximum” of 40%.

Mr. Obama isn’t the first to acknowledge that we have not lived up to our obligation, our commitment. For example, House Resolution 976 in 2001 was the “IDEA Keeping Our Commitment Act of 2001” had the goal “To authorize appropriations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to achieve full funding in fiscal year 2002 and fiscal year 2003, and for other purposes.” It died in committee. As did the “Keeping Our Promises to Special Education Act of 2001″ or the “Keep Our PACT Act” or the “IDEA Full Funding Act” and many other attempts to fulfill the promise.

So congress made the commitment but they gave themselves the ability to dodge that commitment. Many, including President Obama, have recognized that a promise is a promise. They recognize that congress’ stated goal 37 years ago was “A bill to provide financial assistance to the States for improved educational services for handicapped children”. From Mr. Obama’s campaign platform quoted above:

Fully Funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Barack Obama has been a strong and consistent advocate for fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Congress promised to shoulder 40 percent of each state’s “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities, but it has never lived up to this obligation.

With the budget for the final year of Mr. Obama’s first term submitted, we as a people are still not living up to the promise, the obligation. Mr. Obama included a one-time boost for special education in the economic stimulus package. While this is highly disappointing, the sad fact is that should Mr. Obama not be re-elected, the chances for fully-funded special education will be even worse.

Sacramento County Schools “See” The Invisible Epidemic

5 Sep

At the end of this past week, California’s Sacramento Bee reports that “Autism rates quadruple in local schools over last decade“. The article, written by Phillip Reese, seems largely unremarkable. Even though headline is suggestive, there are no claims of “autism epidemic” that follow. In fact, Reese points out that:

Whether autism is actually more prevalent — as opposed to just more frequently diagnosed — is a matter of controversy.

From a scientific perspective, Reese definitely could have dug a lot deeper, but to a casual reader, the relevant facts seem pretty accurate, and a clear chart is provided.

The problem with an article like this, is that to a casual reader it may appear that there doesn’t seem to be any explanation in sight. “Autism is on the increase in Sacramento County Schools for the past decade”, and that’s that – “Why” is some sort of “controversy”, “some districts have more autistic students than others”, “here’s a chart”, and the article ends.

Did the Sacramento Bee miss an opportunity to carry their headline further, and expose an acutal “autism epidemic” in northern California schools?

Not surprisingly, Age Of Autism (always on the lookout for support of the notion that there’s been an autism “epidemic”) thought so. As it turns out, AoA resisted the urge to dig much deeper too. They were apparently satisfied to present a simple retort to the indication that whether or autism is actually more prevalent or more frequently diagnosed is “controversial”.

Seems the SacBee hasn’t read the study from their own state U that said, A study by researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has found that the seven- to eight-fold increase in the number children born in California with autism since 1990 cannot be explained by either changes in how the condition is diagnosed or counted – and the trend shows no sign of abating.

Emphasis AoA’s.

If you think the emapahsized quote above sounds more like a press release than an acutal study, you’d be correct. Does the quoted press release overstate the actual conclusions of the study?

I’ll let readers be the judge of that, here’s the actual study’s conclusion:

Autism incidence in California shows no sign yet of plateauing. Younger ages at diagnosis, differential migration, changesin diagnostic criteria, and inclusion of milder cases do not fully explain the observed increases. Other artifacts have yet to be quantified, and as a result, the extent to which the continued rise represents a true increase in the occurrence of autism remains unclear.

Emphasis mine.

As foreshadowed for us in the conclusion of the actual study, what other artifacts might there be, that have “yet to be quantified”? Big ones like changes in awareness or diagnostic substitution?

Let’s quantify one of those potential artifacts (diagnostic substitution) for the Sacramento County Schools data, shall we?

Here’s the data (available online to the public):

To sum things up, I think Reese’s article/blurb would have been more interesting, only requiring a few extra minutes (the data is already there, presented on the same page when looking up the autism numbers), if it had included information about other changes like the “more than offsetting decrease” of Specific Learning Disabilities over the same time period.

Tell us what you think? Could newspapers do better when reporting on autism data, or do they simply present what their readers are really looking for?

Additional reading on this subject:

California’s Invisible Autism Epidemic (Jan 2009)

California’s Invisible Autism Epidemic Continues (Feb 2010)

California’s Specific Learning Disabilities Counter Epidemic (Feb 2011)

Grand Jury says special education underfunded

1 Jul

This sounded like it could be a good news story. Grand Jury says special education underfunded is a news story out of Ridgecrest California. (If you aren’t familiar with the geography, Ridgecrest is in the southern part of the Owens River valley north of LA in what would be a desert/rural area except for China Lake military base and Edwards Air Force Base).

I was hoping for something in the story pointing out that the amount of money going into Special Education was too low. Not that I want to hear that our good friends in Ridgecrest but, hey, I assume they aren’t getting the funding they need in these tough times.

The story starts out with the cost of Special Ed in the district:

The Sierra Sands Unified School District spent nearly $4.14 million for special education, and nearly $421,000 came from the district’s general fund, according to a just-released Kern County Grand Jury report. The district also spent nearly $11,000 for transportation.

They then make a statement I see all too rarely:

The report said the children of California are entitled to a free and appropriate education by court and legislative mandate.

They got it right. The children of California are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Not “the special education students” as is all too often the focus. No, all children are entitled to FAPE.

We just don’t hear people complaining about the mandate to provide FAPE to non special ed students. And this is where the story starts down that path:

“Like many mandates, the mandating authorities do not fully fund the mandated services,” the report stated. “In 2010-11, the Kern County Grand Jury studied all of the school districts in Kern County to determine costs above and beyond the funds that come to them from the state and federal governments for special education.”

Guess what. The districts pay more for regular students than they get from state and federal government allotments, too. Heck, from what I’ve seen, the state and federal governments don’t live up to their commitments to the mainstream population either, leaving the local governments to backfill.

The term “unfunded mandates” is used a lot. In some ways, it might be better if the IDEA hadn’t promised any money to the local school districts. That way the focus would be on the term “mandated”, not “unfunded”. Then we could ask a simple question: why does the federal government have to mandate that special education students receive an appropriate education? Shouldn’t it be just assumed that all children have a right to an appropriate education? Why do we even question this for special ed students?

You can read the rest of the story. It’s short. But again, I have to ask, why do we have to mandate an appropriate education for special education students? Why single them out? Everyone deserves an appropriate education.

California’s Specific Learning Disabilities Counter Epidemic

19 Feb

The U.S. and California Departments of Education recently released special education data (child counts) for the 2008-2009 school year. A particular focus in the media has been a tripling of the number of students who wear a special education label of “autism” in California.

Needless to say, some probably see this as confirmation of an “autism epidemic”. For a particularly myopic and emotional (anger and fear) interpretation of this recent news story, one need go no further than “Autism Epidemic” central (AoA) and read the data-free opinion piece by Anne Dachel.

For the bigger picture in California, a look at the actual data might be in order.

California Data

For those who may not be able to see the graph of the IDEA data that most closely represents the K-12 age group as a percentage of the resident population, receiving special education services for the last ten years in California: Autism has steadily increased from .13% to .64%, Specific Learning Disabilities has steadily decreased from 5.64% to 4.41%, and totals for all disabilities has remained flat at about 9.2%.

If you believe there’s been an “autism epidemic”, and that special education data from California proves that the schools are overwhelmed, here are a two questions for you:

1. What has caused the decrease in Specific Learning Disabilities (a decrease that more than offsets the increase in autism)?

2. If the special education totals remain unchanged, why are the schools “overwhelmed”?

Special Education Programs, Private Placements, Under Assault

15 Feb

Education week has an article, Special Education Programs, Private Placements, Under Assault, describing some of the recent efforts by states to reduce special education costs.

From Michael Bloomberg suggesting pulling students out of private placements. He cites $100M spent for 4,000 students. I had to check on what that means–it works out to $25,000 per student.

Would this really save money? Probably not:

Sweet said there’s actually very little difference between the dollars spent on private and public schools for special education students because both can easily cost more than $25,000 annually compared to about $17,000, on average, for a general education student.

EdWeek reports that a Texas lawmaker proposed charging parents tuition for state-run schools for the Deaf or Blind (a proposal that is against federal law). And Utah suggested cutting cutting schools for the deaf and blind altogether. They just forgot about the fact that deaf and blind students would still be in Utah and need an education.

Times are tough, economically. Special education is expensive. Let’s hope that few lawmakers go for the false economy of cutting special ed. It really isn’t going to give a real return.

Obama’s State of the Union Address 2011

26 Jan

Last night Barack Obama gave the annual “State of the Union” address to the American people. I have to admit, I missed it, so I waited for a transcript to come out. I searched for “autism”. I searched for “disability”. I found nothing. I searched for “education”. There was much on education, but nothing about special education. OK, there wasn’t anything on autism, disability or special education in 2010’s speech either. I don’t think it was in 2009 either.

Aside from my own interests, why would I look to these speeches for mention of autism or disability or special education? It’s because I remember the promises made on the campaign trail. I remember the disability plan that the Obama/Biden campaign had then.

I remember the promise to fully fund the federal government’s commitment to special education:

Fully Funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Barack Obama has been a strong and consistent advocate for fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Congress promised to shoulder 40 percent of each state’s “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities, but it has never lived up to this obligation. Currently, the federal government provides less than half of the promised funding (17 percent). Children are being shortchanged, and their parents are forced to fight with cash-strapped school districts to get the free and appropriate education the IDEA promises their children. Fully funding IDEA will provide students with disabilities the public education they have a right to, and school districts will be able to provide services without cutting into their general education budgets. In addition to fully funding IDEA, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will ensure effective implementation and enforcement of the Act.

IDEA is still not fully funded. The economic stimulus funds did give a one-year boost to IDEA funding (not 100% funded, but a lot more than usual). No long term commitment to keep higher levels has come through.

I remember autism being prominent in the plan:

Supporting Americans Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders: More than one million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a complex neurobiological condition that has a range of impacts on thinking, feeling, language, and the ability to relate to others. As diagnostic criteria broaden and awareness increases, more cases of ASD have been recognized across the country. Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe we need to research treatments and search for the causes of ASD. Obama has been a strong supporter of more than $1 billion in federal funding for ASD research on the root causes and treatments. Barack Obama and Joe Biden believes we must work to guarantee that Americans with ASD can live independent and fully productive lives and to assure that their families understand and are able to support a loved one with ASD. They will fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to ensure that no child with ASD or any other disability is left behind. They will also fight to assure that the government and our communities work together to provide a helping hand to people with ASD and their families.

Obama has a long record supporting people with ASD. In the state senate, Obama sponsored legislation that became law to create the ASD Program – a systems development initiative designed to promote the implementation of evidence-based practices. And in the U.S. Senate, Obama is also a cosponsor of a measure that would expand federal funding for life-long services for people with ASD, authorizing approximately $350 million in new federal funding for key programs related to treatments, interventions and services for both children and adults with ASD.

More money has gone into research, especially a big one-year boost from the economic stimulus funds.

The Obama/Biden campaign had an autism specific agenda document, which included an individual to oversee federal autism efforts:

Appoint Federal ASD Coordinator to Oversee All Federal ASD Efforts: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will ensure all federal ASD activities occur in an efficient manner that prioritizes both research and supports for families affected by ASD. They will appoint a Federal ASD Coordinator to oversee federal ASD research and federal efforts to improve awareness of ASD and improve the training of medical professionals to identify and treat ASD. By establishing one top-level point person to coordinate ASD efforts in the White House, they will ensure that ASD receives the recognition and priority it deserves in the federal government. The Federal ASD Coordinator will also be tasked with eliminating bureaucratic obstacles that may be delaying implementation of important ASD measures and ensuring that all federal ASD dollars are being spent in a manner that prioritizes results. The Coordinator will work with state task forces on ASD to ensure effective communication and collaboration among federal, state, and local agencies.

I remember these things. I bet a lot of readers here do too. We remember. We vote.

California’s Invisible Autism Epidemic Continues

13 Feb

Over a year ago, I wrote a post at Autism Street titled,
California’s Invisible Autism Epidemic“.

At the time, IDEA child count and population data was available through 2007. Admittedly, what follows is a bit of a repeat, but there is updated information included too.

That January 2009 post asked the following question:

It would seem that many an “autism advocate” has warned us of an impending “crisis” that looms for California’s healthcare systems and schools. If autism caseload is increasing, and it represents a real increase in autism itself, then a next logical conclusion is that, ceteris paribus, similar increases will also be seen in the total numbers of children in special education in California’s schools, right?

And suggested an answer:

Wrong – well, maybe wrong.

Another year has passed, and IDEA data for 2008 is beginning to become available. Here’s what the preliminary IDEA data for California kids in elementary, middle, and high schools shows for autism now:


To borrow a phrase from Bev over at Asperger Square 8, “Don’t Panic!”.

Also, please remember, that like the CDDS client data, the IDEA is not descriptive epidemiology.

The USDE data are not reliable for tracking the prevalence of autism, and they in fact never were meant to fill this need.


What we can actually learn from this, is that the increase in the number of kids receiving special education services who wear an “autism” category label continues to increase.

Of course the, “not so fast” is next.

The Invisible Epidemic

The next graph shows a bigger picture in California. It’s the number of students (age 6-17) receiving special education services, as a percentage of the population (age 6-17) for all disability categories.

All Disabilities

The percentage has been flat, at a little under 9.2%, for 11 straight years. How is this possible? If there have been “epidemic” increases in the autism category, all things being equal, we should have seen this number rise, shouldn’t we? And therein lies one potential answer – all things are probably not equal. It’s true that within the IDEA data for California, the increase in the use of the “Autism” category label is not offset by decreases in the use of the category label “Mental Retardation”. The increase is also not offset by a corresponding decrease in use of the label “Speech or Language Impairment”.

Speech or Language Impairment

A communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.


So what else is there? Something big in California?

Autism and SLD's

Specific Learning Disability

A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.


I can still see how, in days of lower awareness and recognition of autism among parents and educators, an autistic child could easily be placed in this category (as a kind of catch-all), based on the first portion alone – “A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written…”. It could even be the case, that alongside less awareness and recognition, there was also some degree of unwillingness to use a category label like “Autism” on the part of both parents and educators.

Interestingly, the apparent in increase of .09% of the resident population categorized under “autism” appears to be offset by a .09% of the resident population decrease for “specific learning disabilities” in 2008.

Source data can be found at

US Supreme Court Ruling on Special Education

24 Jun

The US Supreme Court has ruled in the case of Forest Grove School District v T.A. The question was fairly simple: can a child be granted a private placement (outside of the state educational system) if that child doesn’t receive any services from the district?

The district in question argued that the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) states that a placement could not be paid for (or in this case reimbursed as the parents were footing the bill at first) if:

“previously received special education or related services under the [school’s] authority.”

The family argued that the key provision of the IDEA is the concept of FAPE: the school system must provide a Free Appropriate Public Education. If the district has no appropriate placements, how can the parents be expected to place their child with the district?

The US Supreme Court sided with the parents:

Held: IDEA authorizes reimbursement for private special-education services when a public school fails to provide a FAPE and the private school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received special-education services through the public school.

Kristina Chew has covered this already at Change.Org
, as have others.

This is exactly the sort of topic we as a community and as a part of a greater disability community should be discussing. It is vitally important to those with children in the US. I hope that such decisions will have impact internationally as well.

California tries to win back “stay put”

13 Apr

Parents, of course, have the primary responsibility to provide for the needs of their children. But, children and adults with special needs often require more than their parents can provide, and that’s where government agencies are supposed to help out.

In California, the Regional Centers manage government sponsored services for those with exceptional needs up to age 3. At age 3, the school districts take over as the lead agency, with the RC’s taking a secondary role.

That is, of course, if all goes according to plan.

What if a school district is swamped or for any other reason isn’t prepared to take over? What happens to the child’s services?

Up until a couple of years ago, the child would stay in the same services until the school district and parents could work out the new plan. This was called “stay put”. A family could say, “Hey, look, you aren’t prepared to take on my kid’s services in the school, so we are going to ‘stay put’ with the services we have until this gets worked out”. During ‘stay put’, the district pays for the same services the RC was paying for until age 3.

Then came a change to IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. Stay put was lost.

Yeah, parents can pay out of pocket while going through a dispute process. That is, parents with the money to do so. The dispute process, at best, take a few months.

This didn’t happen without a lot of activism to try to keep “stay put”. So far, it hasn’t reinstated “stay put”, but there is hope. State Assembly Bill AB1124 is in process.

There is a hearing on this with the Education Committee, this Wednesday (April 15).

This is a proposed California Law, but, let’s face it, setting the precedent that stay put needs to be in place could help people throughout the US. For Californians, now would be a good time to contact your assembly person about this. If your assembly person is on the Education Committee, now is a REALLY good time to contact him/her.

Stimulus package update

7 Feb

I knew I was running the risk of having my last post become obsolete immediately. Had I checked the news before I hit publish, I’d have seen that reports were out that the U.S. Senate had already passed their version of the bill, making it obsolete even before it was public.

OK, remember your civics classes? Or, if you are not a U.S. citizen, remember all those times that the U.S. political system seemed utterly confusing?

This is one of those times. (But, bear with me…or skip to the bottom: we need your help!)

First the House of Representatives passed their stimulus bill: H.R. 1. After they finished, they sent the bill to the Senate. The Senate, being a bunch of opinionated people, get to muck around with H.R. 1 and rewrite it. What just happened today is that the Senate passed their version of the Stimulus package. This is S.A. 98. In the process of rewriting, they added, oh, about 400 amendments to the bill. I’d love to tell you what they are, but they’ve come in so fast and furious that the government’s website hasn’t been able to catch up yet.

Many of the amendments say:

AMENDMENT PURPOSE: Purpose will be available when the amendment is proposed for consideration. See Congressional Record for text.

Here’s one that seemed good to me,

To provide an additional $6,500,000,000 to the National Institutes of Health for biomedical research.

Yep, $6.5B, with a B. That version got shot down…but this version (which appears the same in the short summary) got approved. Like I said, the U.S. Political system can be a little strange.

OK, it’s late. I don’t want to read through another 300 amendments. Especially when the amendment that has the cut to IDEA is buried in a quick summary like “to eliminate unnecessary spending”.

The word on the street (and probably somewhere on the website) is that the IDEA funding increase was cut down.

Does that mean the struggle is over? Hardly. It won’t be easy to get the funding level increased again, but keep in mind, the Senate and House versions of the bill are not the same. Before they send it to President Obama, they have to reconcile the two bills.

Or, as one news story puts it:

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said negotiators from the House and Senate would begin crafting a compromise bill on Monday, with the goal of sending legislation to President Barack Obama by the end of next week.

So, there is a chance for the the House to assert its version of IDEA funding.

In other words, now would be a good time to call, email or fax your member of congress or senators.