Occasionally, Congress addresses education in a meaningful, bipartisan way. Take, for instance, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act—the long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that restored an emphasis on local and state leadership. Then, too, there was this year’s reauthorization of the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which also won the backing of legislators from both parties. Both were major advocacy victories for NSBA.
The good news in these events is that it is possible for Congress to overcome its normally debilitating partisanship to create statutes with broad support. Celebrating the fact that the lawmaking process can work is faint praise indeed, but it is worth the effort, if only to remind legislators why they were sent to Washington in the first place.
The next major federal education law demanding attention is the tremendously successful Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is far past due to be updated and reauthorized. NSBA is prepared to offer substantive proposals to improve the support of special education programs, which are deeply embedded in the instructional activities of every school district. These services touch millions of lives, including the children who receive them, the teachers and other professionals who deliver them, the parents and families who have a deeply personal interest in their effectiveness, and ultimately the taxpayers who pay for them.
No one would deny that this is an inherently expensive proposition since, by definition, the beneficiaries of services are children with special needs who require individualized assistance. It is not surprising, then, that advocacy by local school leaders concerning special education typically focuses on money—how much the program costs, and how much more funding is needed for it.
Those of us who have worked in this arena have the financial arguments down pat. We are quick to remind legislators of the historic commitment by the federal government to pay 40 percent of the cost of special education that exceeds regular instructional expenses, and how woefully short it has been of achieving that goal. We note that this underfunding has been exacerbated by many state governments that also have failed to underwrite the program adequately. And we have impressive data to demonstrate how all of this has strained local school budgets.
These points are compelling but, sadly, they generally have not been persuasive. The reason for that has a lot to do with the congressional process itself, which generally is divided into action on the substance of programs, under the oversight of committees of jurisdiction (in this case, the House and Senate education committees), and the funding for them (the budget and appropriations committees). These are distinct activities, each little informed by the other. While school boards may view special education as a single policy issue involving both the services being provided as well as the money to deliver them, Congress examines those two aspects as separate matters entirely.
If we advocate for IDEA by focusing almost exclusively on money, we become just one voice screaming for attention in a cacophony of interests demanding more federal aid. Our advantage: countless success stories over many decades. We know, and can certainly demonstrate, that special education is having a profound, positive impact on the children it serves, and how it enables them to become productive, contributing members of society. In short, special education is a sound investment, not simply another expense. With a new Congress convening soon, this is an excellent time to make that case.