Photo: Alison Yin/EdSource

In a rare move by a presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden detailed his plans this month calling for full federal funding of special education — something that hasn’t happened since Congress first passed sweeping legislation for students with disabilities 45 years ago.

In California, that could mean an additional $2.66 billion for schools annually, according to the California School Boards Association.

The extra money would give schools leeway in their budgets for other programs, and improve special education offerings in districts that have struggled to meet the needs of students with disabilities, advocates said. This flexibility would be especially valuable as schools navigate budget cuts and distance learning during the pandemic.

Congress ultimately decides on school funding, but Biden’s platform is still worth celebrating, advocates said. Special education rarely garners attention from presidential candidates, and the support for full funding is reason for hope, they said.

“It’s hugely significant,” said Carolynne Bottum, a lecturer at the UC Davis School of Education and a former director of the Special Education Local Area Plan for Yolo County. “This wouldn’t just benefit students with disabilities, it would benefit all children.”

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, enacted in 1975, guarantees students with disabilities the right to a free public education appropriate to their needs. The law requires that the federal government cover 40% of the cost, and states, counties and school districts pay the remaining 60%.

But the federal government has never met the 40% goal. In 2018-19, federal funding only covered 8.4% of special education costs in California, leaving the state and local districts to cover the rest. That’s left many districts in a bind, as special education costs rise — due to an increase in students with autism and severe disabilities — and revenues fall due to declining enrollment.

About 800,000 students in California were enrolled in special education in 2018-19, a number that’s been increasing even as the state’s overall enrollment has held steady. The increase is due partly to the rise in diagnoses of autism, which affected 1 in 50 students in 2017-18 but only 1 in 600 in 1997-98, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Students with autism often need speech and behavioral therapy and one-on-one aides in the classroom, making them especially expensive to educate. Other high costs for districts include private school placement for students with unique needs, and litigation, as parents file complaints to improve services for their children, Bottum said.

Biden’s proposal is part of a broad platform addressing the rights of people with disabilities. In addition to funding special education, Biden is calling for other benefits for students with disabilities, including:

  • A tripling of Title I school funding for low-income students, as proposed in his education platform.
  • Special education teacher recruitment and training.
  • Expanded programs for young children with disabilities, which experts say can greatly improve outcomes for disabled students over the long term.
  • Discipline reform, including a ban on seclusion and more restrictions on the use of restraint.
  • Anti-bullying measures.
  • Job training.
  • Funding for colleges to accommodate students with disabilities.

Biden’s proposal follows a bill introduced last year by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, that would also fully fund special education. That bill stalled in a House committee.

Biden is not the first presidential candidate to speak about disability rights, but he’s the first since Barrack Obama in 2008 to specifically address funding for special education, said Jason Willis, area director of strategic resource planning and implementation at West Ed, a research firm. Like Biden, Obama called for full funding of special education and even considered hiring a disability czar.

“What he’s saying is the federal government should follow through with its original commitment” to fund 40% of special education, he said. “This is important, especially in the current climate where states are cutting budgets. … . But like any proposal, it’ll come down to the political will for it to actually happen.”

Even if Congress does agree to allot extra money for special education, the system will not change overnight, Willis said. Districts will have to plan how to spend the money effectively and include measures for accountability, transparency and public input.

“Districts will need to be thoughtful in their approach, maybe by starting small — using evidence and justification — and ramping up over two or three years,” he said.

Schools should stay focused on the disproportionate percentage of Black and Latino children who are enrolled in special education, he said.

Special education in California has long needed an overhaul, according to a 13-part report released in February by researchers at Policy Analysis for California Education. Chronic funding shortfalls have led to high teacher turnover, inadequate early childhood programs, inconsistent transitions from preschool to K-12 schools to the workforce, and insufficient services like occupational, speech and behavioral therapy, among other issues, according to the report.

More funding won’t solve everything, but it would definitely help — especially as schools grapple with budget cuts and an uncertain learning environment due to the coronavirus pandemic, said Heather Hough, executive director of PACE and an author of the report.

“We know that special education is underfunded. We know that general education is underfunded,” she said. “This is an opportunity to rethink the entire system, to be creative about how we design our schools so students with disabilities are not on the fringes, but in the center.”

Addressing teacher turnover is a good place to start, she said. But higher salaries aren’t the only issue. Teachers — both in special education classrooms and general education classrooms — need smaller class sizes and better training on how to serve students with varying needs. More aides and counselors would also help improve their working conditions, she said.

She’s hopeful about Biden’s plan and other calls for improvements in special education policy.

“In the past there’s been a real reluctance in the public sphere to focus on students with disabilities,” she said. “But times are changing.”

Bottum was also optimistic that special education funding and policy changes might be edging closer to becoming reality. For decades, politicians rarely addressed special education because they themselves had no idea what good special education programs looked like, she said. In their own school experiences, students with disabilities may not have even attended school, she said.

“A few years ago, I would have said this is a pipe dream, but I don’t think so anymore,” she said. “There could finally be a change. And there should be.”

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  1. Will 3 months ago3 months ago

    You can fully fund school districts but that doesn’t mean the money will get to the school level. Special education administration varies greatly from district to district. My district administration would spend extra money on themselves before hiring needed staff…

    Replies

    • kristina l Rogstad 3 months ago3 months ago

      I sadly agree with you. When superintendents get over $350,000 a year and teachers have not gotten a raise in 3 years. There is a problem.

  2. Cassandra Campbell 3 months ago3 months ago

    This is interesting information; now we need to actually let things happen. As a parent we struggle with public school regulations and discrimination. Every American should have an equal opportunity; however, we are still waiting.

  3. Suzanne Karfiol 3 months ago3 months ago

    More students are being diagnosed with Autism because we know more about Autism. In the past, many children with Autism were diagnosed as schizophrenic or having a language delay when the more global disability of Autism was actually the case and that language processing techniques would have been more appropriate than some of the adaptations prescribed.

    Autism encompasses a spectrum of behaviors. Most characteristic behaviors include repetitive speech or gestures, fascination with twirling objects, obsessive compulsive behavior.

  4. RealityCheck 3 months ago3 months ago

    Really? Where is the money coming from? He was in office for several years as a senator and then Vice President? Election promises. Give, give, give … who actually pays for all of this? Corporations? The supposed rich? Yet people blindly believe.

  5. Sean 3 months ago3 months ago

    I’m a school psychologist in WA State. While I’m happy to hear there’s a plan at the federal level to finally address funding shortfalls (assuming he’s elected, of course), I don’t know how much good it will do. A large part of the problem is the availability of qualified personnel: SpEd teachers, speech pathologists, motor specialists, Autism specialists, BCBA’s, and yes, school psychologists. Those people don’t magically appear out of nowhere just because more money … Read More

    I’m a school psychologist in WA State. While I’m happy to hear there’s a plan at the federal level to finally address funding shortfalls (assuming he’s elected, of course), I don’t know how much good it will do. A large part of the problem is the availability of qualified personnel: SpEd teachers, speech pathologists, motor specialists, Autism specialists, BCBA’s, and yes, school psychologists. Those people don’t magically appear out of nowhere just because more money is thrown at them. It isn’t enough to just start paying those currently working what they’re worth, you have to invest in training programs, mentorships, hybrid work-to-credential programs, etc.

    Over the last 45 years, our country has had it ingrained that public education just doesn’t pay well enough to justify the high student loans. Many people have pursued it in light of that, but it’s a prevailing reason as to why specialists are staying in the private field, and why budding school psychologists aren’t rushing to enter intensive master’s level programs, just to graduate and earn a paycheck not much better than their teacher counterparts.

    The culture is going to have to change, along with the funding levels, if we expect to move forward.

  6. Paulette 3 months ago3 months ago

    Another political manipulation of people with disabilities. What was the percentage of funding for this while Obama was President? Our students with disabilities are going to have much bigger problems with COVID in the fall than with this pie in the sky promise.

  7. Muhammad Zia Ur Rehman 3 months ago3 months ago

    Good step by Mr. Biden, I hope he will take this work further ….

  8. Dani 3 months ago3 months ago

    I doubt it would go through. I have an MA in mod/severe multiple disabilities, as well as a Clear Level I mod/severe credential. The trend that the school districts are doing is having the general ed staff be trained a bit more about special ed and getting rid of the sped teachers because we cost too much. I have been forced to retire at the end of the month and I … Read More

    I doubt it would go through. I have an MA in mod/severe multiple disabilities, as well as a Clear Level I mod/severe credential.

    The trend that the school districts are doing is having the general ed staff be trained a bit more about special ed and getting rid of the sped teachers because we cost too much. I have been forced to retire at the end of the month and I am not the only one. I am 12 years away from retirement age.

  9. Hermes 3 months ago3 months ago

    So, what have been doing all these decades the highly paid education administrators regarding the 40 percent funding? Have they threatened to sue the federal government?

  10. Mary Sandoval 3 months ago3 months ago

    I’m happy that someone is listening. As a school board member, I know that the districts have a huge encroachment on their budget to fund special education. My colleagues from other districts have and visit the State Capitol every year and make our Assembly and Senators aware of issues that our 33 school districts face everyday.

  11. Earl Lee 3 months ago3 months ago

    I am a Special Education Master Teacher and I am appalled regarding the treatment of special education students and the pathetic attempts to continually lie to the public regarding their sincere attempts to inform and involve special education kids in their facades to meet the mandate regarding IDEA.

  12. Mari Tamburo 3 months ago3 months ago

    This is wonderful news. Thank you for such a well written article. Let’s make sure that arts education is funded. Every child deserves a well rounded education. That includes music appreciation, visual and performing arts, and dance as part of physical education.

  13. MP 3 months ago3 months ago

    Great news but where is the money coming from?

  14. Nick 3 months ago3 months ago

    Election year promises. I’m hopeful but realistic. I work at a charter school for SPED, get paid well, provide great opportunities for our kids but the insurance is what my problem is.

  15. Sheila Jordan 3 months ago3 months ago

    I appreciate the focus you have brought to the needs of serving special education students in a more comprehensive, effective and safe way. One addition is that fully funding special education will also assist general fund monies. Typically, districts must encroach on programs for standard programs in order to provide mandated special ed programs. Full funding for special education will eliminate that encroachment. Also important, the expense and training of providing successful … Read More

    I appreciate the focus you have brought to the needs of serving special education students in a more comprehensive, effective and safe way. One addition is that fully funding special education will also assist general fund monies. Typically, districts must encroach on programs for standard programs in order to provide mandated special ed programs. Full funding for special education will eliminate that encroachment.

    Also important, the expense and training of providing successful special ed programs provide an added incentive to charter schools that often avoid serving this high need but important group of children.