It wasn’t so long ago that 1 in 5 children with special needs were kept out of public schools in this country. In many places they were shunted off to state institutions or subpar facilities, far away from others.
Not until the 1970s did Congress step in with groundbreaking legislation that required public schools to offer such children the same educational opportunities as others. By 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act went further, ensuring that such children be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning their local school. To help with this enormously costly undertaking, the federal government pledged to fund 40 percent of the local schools’ additional costs.
That never happened.
Instead, local schools ever since have struggled to meet those mandates with only a sliver of the promised federal funding and some state aid. In Minnesota, federal funding amounts to 8 percent and is projected to fall to 6.5 percent by 2020. This is in the face of special-ed costs that have doubled in the last decade and now stand at about $2.5 billion a year in Minnesota alone, ticking up about 5 percent annually.
The resulting gap has hurt everyone — special-needs students who don’t always get what they need, schools that are forced to take money from other needs, and homeowners and landowners whose property taxes go up to help make up the difference.
Hearing politicians bemoan the special-ed funding gap has become a staple of campaigns. Many politicians over the years have righteously denounced the gap, yet it remains.
That’s why it’s heartening to see two Minnesota congressional newcomers from opposite sides of the aisle take this on in a serious way nearly as soon as they hit Washington. They have a special reason. Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, of northern Minnesota’s Eighth District, and Democratic Rep. Angie Craig, of southern Minnesota’s Second District, each are raising a special-needs child. They learned of their bond while chatting on a train bound for a freshman retreat and resolved on the spot to tackle this as a joint mission.
Stauber said he can’t imagine a time when his 16-year-old son, Isaac, who has Down syndrome, would not have been welcomed with caring teachers and appropriate help at his local school. “That’s been such a comfort,” Stauber told an editorial writer. “But I’ve seen the struggle they have affording all this.” He noted that in Bemidji schools alone, the gap costs $4.1 million a year.
“Full funding is the right thing to do, and it puts the federal government back on track to honor their commitment,” he said. Craig and Stauber’s bill would boost federal funding this year and keep ramping it up over the next decade until it hits the full 40 percent.
“If Pete and I can build support in our caucuses — if we can help them understand this isn’t about special-ed students alone; it’s about our entire communities — I’m sure we’ll get there,” Craig told an editorial writer. “We refuse to believe this isn’t a priority and value of this nation. It’s everyone’s issue.”
Third District Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips announced his support earlier this month, and each member of Minnesota’s delegation — including its senators — should follow suit. There isn’t a school district, family or homeowner in Minnesota who isn’t touched by special education in some way.
And it’s only right that this push should start here. This state was a pioneer on special ed, passing a law in 1957 that required public schools to accommodate children with disabilities. That law became the model for the federal law.
Now Minnesota should lead the way again and make the federal government live up to its decades-old promise.