Published in Delaware County’s Daily Newspaper            \

Monday, October 26, 2020

By Joseph Batory, Columnist

The Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA) became law in 1975.  Through this legislation, the United States Congress approved federal financial support of up to 40% of the costs of implementation of the appropriate special education services for all children with disabilities by school districts. 

This was a groundbreakingly positive federal government law. The result is that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has now had a significant impact for students with disabilities by supporting their right to a free, appropriate public education. Data from the American Association of School Administrators shows that more than six million students now receive special education services designed to meet their individual needs.  And about 350,000 infants and toddlers receive early intervention services.

This was a major change from the past when our nation’s students with disabilities were not guaranteed the right to attend public schools. In fact, many were turned away because of their disabilities. Today, because of IDEA, students with disabilities are in every public school and in numerous classrooms across the country. The majority of USA students with disabilities now spend most of their time (more than 80% of the day) in general education classrooms. And a higher number than ever before are graduating from high school and enrolling in college.

BUT……over the past four decades the reality is that the federal funding for IDEA each year has not been anywhere near its adopted legislative promise to school districts. And this has created significant local revenue shortages of billions of dollars for school districts to provide special education services across the USA

Because IDEA is a mandated federal law, the programs for students with disabilities were provided by school districts as per the legislation. But the federal government has not met its promise of 40% of the required funding for IDEA has this has created budget nightmares for school districts which have had to try to make up the difference for the shortfall.

The National Council on Disability (NCD) has documented how this massive underfunding of IDEA by the federal government has negatively impacted school districts.  NCD has found that the lack of promised federal support has placed intense pressure on state and local budgets for reductions and cutbacks. In numerous cases, monies from the general education services and needs of schools have been reduced and/or local real estate taxes have regularly been increased to make up for this federal government neglect.

In a recent Education Week survey of principals and district administrators, the majority of respondents listed special education among the major factors that were increasing per pupil costs.   And special education was listed among the top five areas most in need of improved federal government funding in those school systems.

By law, IDEA was supposed to be a “shared responsibility.” But the federal government’s long-term failure to meet its commitment to fully fund its fair share (40%) of IDEA has betrayed these students and exacerbated the financial challenges to school districts. Decades of neglect of this federal government irresponsibility for IDEA has been devastating for public school budgeting and clearly caused rises in real estate taxes.  

Ironically, while Congress has been ignoring the full funding for its federally enacted law for special needs students, tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and corporations have occurred and walls have been built. So, what does this say about Congressional commitment to students with disabilities and their families?

Since the inception of IDEA, federal funding has generally hovered around 15% of the promised 40%. As a result, school districts have had to and are still using local tax dollars to make up for this underfunding of billions of dollars each year.  

The good news is that a bipartisan IDEA Full Funding Act was “introduced” to Congress on March 26, 2019 by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Pat Roberts (R-KS). But bear in mind that Congress over the years has rejected similar proposed legislation. Political in-fighting continues to take precedence over the needs of school children.

This IDEA Full Funding Act, currently languishing in Congress, would create a plan to gradually increase Federal IDEA Funding to its original commitment of funding 40 percent of the of the costs by fiscal year 2029.  But its adoption by Congress is far from certain.

NB—This proposed IDEA federal legislation has the endorsement of almost every major education organization (30) in the USAThe question is: Will there ever be enough honesty and integrity and courage in the Congress of the United States to finally fulfill its promise to students with disabilities via IDEA.


Joseph Batory was superintendent of schools in the Upper Darby School District from 1984 to 1999. He has been recognized with the Lifetime Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of School Administrators.

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