CHN: House Passes IDEA Reauthorization Legislation

Contentious Funding Debate Moves to Senate
On Wednesday, April 30, the House approved legislation to rewrite and reauthorize the nation’s special education law, the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (PL 105-17). Known by its acronym, IDEA guarantees students with disabilities a free public education in the “least restrictive environment” and authorizes the federal government to reimburse states for 40 percent of the average per-pupil special education cost. The reauthorizing legislation (HR 1350) was passed in the House largely along party lines by a vote of 251-171.

The greatest dissention in the chamber’s reauthorization debate was raised over IDEA’s funding levels and its federal reimbursement rates to states. The federal government currently compensates school districts for 18 percent of the average cost per special education student; in fiscal year 2003 this amounted to $8.9 billion in discretionary spending for the education of 6.5 million students with disabilities. Democrats and advocates argue that spending will never reach the 40 percent reimbursement goal unless it is guaranteed as an entitlement. Republicans counter that discretionary spending is the best way to increase IDEA funding while maintaining the program’s flexibility.

House Democrats pushed hard for mandatory funding in the reauthorization process, contending that they were shut out by Republican leaders’ refusal to allow a floor vote on an amendment that would have made IDEA an entitlement. Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) originally introduced the amendment in the House Education and Workforce Committee where it was defeated after heated debate, on a 22-26 party-line vote. The amendment would have made IDEA funding mandatory and thus guaranteed full funding of the 40 percent reimbursement rate to states within six years.

The final version of the House bill would authorize $2.2 billion in discretionary spending for FY 04 over the current $8.9 billion, and another $2.5 billion for FY 05. The measure does not set authorization levels beyond 2005, but bill sponsor Representative Michael Castle (R-DE) claims that the legislation’s authorized funding levels will put IDEA on track for full funding within seven years. Full funding will only be reached, however, if Congress appropriates all of the authorized money, which it has failed to do in the past. During floor debate on HR 1350, the House rejected an amendment introduced by Representative Charles Bass (R-NH), and approved at the committee level, that would have designated future funding increases as mandatory spending, while maintaining current expenditures as discretionary.

IDEA is set to expire on September 30, 2003, the end of the current fiscal year. In the Senate, ranking Health, Education, Labor, and Program (HELP) Committee Members Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) have been working on a bipartisan bill for months, with the hope of finishing the legislation before the Memorial Day recess. The conflict over IDEA funding and state reimbursement rates will now shift to the Senate, but Senator Gregg has said that his and Senator Kennedy’s plan is “to bring a bill to the committee that [they] can agree on and save the really contentious issues for a floor debate.” Unlike in House, Republicans in the Senate only hold a two-vote majority, and thus, will likely have a much harder time muscling their legislation through with limited conflict.

Education and Youth Policy