Special education would get big boost under Biden proposal

June 26, 2020

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:

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.”