Federal Initiatives to Support Intensive Special Education Services

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Written by: Sharmila Mann
June 3, 2020
Education Commission of the States was recently asked to compile research on how states and the federal government provide financial support to districts as they work to support special education students with the most significant needs. In the second of two blog posts, we discuss past and current federal initiatives aimed at supporting the costs of educating these students.

The most significant piece of federal legislation supporting special education students is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. When IDEA was enacted in 1975, the intention was to fund 40% of the cost of special education services across the U.S., with states and districts picking up the remaining 60%.

Unfortunately, IDEA appropriations have fallen significantly short of these expectations; in 2019, IDEA funds covered less than 15% of the total costs of educating the nation’s special education students. This figure is in reference to the average cost of special education services in the states, calculated as 2 times the state’s average per-pupil spending for non-special education students. To provide an appropriate education for the 5% of special education students with the most significant needs, states will spend more than 3 times their average per-pupil amount.

During the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, Congress responded to this shortfall by adding a provision allowing states to set aside approximately 1% of the total funds allocated through IDEA Part B. These reserved funds could be used to create or supplement a state’s pool of “high-cost funds” to reduce district costs for more intensive special education services. To access funds for this purpose, states must provide a plan for the high-cost fund and make it available to the public at least 30 days before the beginning of the school year. States’ plans must include:

    • A definition of intensive special education services that ensures that the cost is greater than 3 times the average per-pupil expenditure in that state.
    • District eligibility criteria that consider the number and percentage of students served.
    • A funding mechanism that provides distributions each fiscal year to local education agencies that meet the criteria developed by the state.
    • An annual distribution schedule for the high cost fund.

Congress continues to investigate ways to further support states that create their own high cost funding pools separate from the IDEA Part B allocation. (For further discussion of these state models, please see our first blog post in this pair.) Introduced in October 2019, the IDEA High Cost Pool Funding Act (H.R. 4673) would provide additional allocations to states willing to match at least 25% of the grant amount with non-federal funds. While such grants would not fully finance state and district costs of providing services to special education students with the most significant needs, this allocation would both recognize state initiatives to support districts as they serve this population of students and move the needle on the 1975 Congressional promise to states for special education funding.

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