Polis set to introduce bill to better fund special education

Rep. Jared Polis (Image: AP via Wall Street Journal)

Congressman Jared Polis, D-Boulder, Tuesday announced he will introduce legislation to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, which promised to pay 40 percent of the excess cost of educating students with disabilities.

His bill, the Defending Special Education Students and Families Act would increase IDEA funding over the next five years. The bill would be paid for by cutting what Polis said are wasteful and unnecessary Pentagon defense programs.

The bill would steadily increase funding each year through 2016, increasing the annual federal allocation from $11.5 billion this year to $30.6 billion in 2016. Beyond 2016, funding would remain steady at 40 percent of the actual state and local cost, according to Polis’s office.

“The foundation of a strong economy and job creation begins with providing every child in America with the best possible education, including students with disabilities,” said Polis in a prepared statement.

“This legislation keeps our promise to special education students and families and provides much needed fiscal relief to cash-strapped states and local school districts. Rather than wasting taxpayer dollars on costly and ineffective defense programs, this legislation reinvests in America’s children and our economy.”

“Funding the needs of our special education students is work that has integrity,” said Cynthia Stevenson, superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools. “As the superintendent of Jeffco Schools, I believe that every one of our nearly 8,000 special education students deserves a great education. I applaud Congressman Polis’ efforts to fully fund special education.”

“Our District’s performance in serving students with disabilities is not where it needs to be,” said Chris Gdowski, superintendent of Adams 12 Five Star Schools. “Funding IDEA at the 40 percent level promised by Congress when the law was adopted would allow us to offer additional services and supports for our students with disabilities so that they develop stronger academic skills.”

“I am thrilled to see a bill being proposed… to fully fund IDEA,” commented Tina Goar, superintendent of Gilpin County School District. “School districts across Colorado have had to make many tough choices and sacrifices for a number of years in order to fund our special education programs and the requirements set forth by federal regulations. Its passage will be a major boost in public education and most importantly for our children.”

Congress pledged to pay up to 40 percent of the excess cost of educating students with disabilities when it passed IDEA. Yet, today, the federal government covers only about 16 percent of special education costs. In Colorado, the special education funding burden falls mostly on the state’s 178 local school districts, which in 2009-10 provided nearly 62 percent of the funds and the state paid about 20 percent of the costs. Federal funding amounted to 18.5 percent.

“In this time of huge budget constraints, the increased federal investment in special education will help our school districts considerably,” said Colorado State Senator Evie Hudak, D-Westminster.

“Special education is one of the most costly items in a district’s budget. IDEA helps provide equity in education, allowing all students to have an opportunity to succeed, even if they have disabilities,” Hudak said.

“In 2010, the number of children in Colorado accessing special education services was more than 80,000, a significant increase from prior years and occurring at the same time Colorado faced the largest cuts to education funding in our state’s history,” said Chris Watney, president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “These additional supports are critical to ensuring that every child in Colorado is given the opportunity to succeed in college and career.”

The bill’s increase in IDEA funding would be fully offset by cutting what Polis says are unnecessary Defense Department weapons systems by $18.8 billion over the next five years. The bill would replace projected purchases of the Navy and Marine Joint Strike Fighters, which have suffered repeated cost overruns, with less expensive F/A-18E/Fs. It would cancel the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a program that Polis said the Pentagon no longer supports.

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