How Budget Cuts Continue to Make Us Sicker, Poorer and Less Secure


Lack of Funding Results in Failure to Meet the Standards for Students with Special Needs

Featuring: Shawna Hanson, mother of children with autism, Missoula, Montana, and
Jim Stefankiewicz, Superintendent, Ocean Township School District, Oakhurst, New Jersey

Photo Featuring Gus Hanson

ROLE OF GOVERNMENT: Ensuring Access to an Appropriate Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in 1975 and requires a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to be available for children throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services for those students. The law governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities.1

The federal government also provides some support to the states to fund IDEA requirements in their school districts. IDEA has four sections, the largest portion of which funds services for school-aged children through a formula. The formula guarantees states funding equal to the amount received in 1999, but any additional funds must be appropriated by Congress and allocated in a bifurcated system. If the total program appropriation increases over the prior year, 85 percent of the remaining funds are allocated based on the number of children in the general population in the statutory age range. Fifteen percent of the remaining funds are allocated based on the number of children living in poverty requiring services.2

When enacted, the program was designed so that the federal government would cover approximately 40 percent of the costs associated with educating students with disabilities. However, that formula relies on Congress appropriating enough money each year to meet those needs. And, unfortunately, while the costs of educating these students has gone up, funding has not, leaving state and local governments to pick up the costs. Some estimates put the increase in the cost burden on local districts as high as 40 percent since the 1960s.3

IDEA Part B Funding
(in Billions of FY18 Inflation Adjusted Dollars)

Source: Summary of FY 2003-2018 Final Appropriations prepared by the Committee for Education Funding

Fighting for an Appropriate Education

Shawna Hanson understands all too well how tight budgets make it difficult for those living with disabilities to receive a proper education. As a mother of two children affected by autism, she is a tireless advocate. For her, the struggle started when her first son, Gus, began his education.

Shawna’s son Gus is nonverbal and can be aggressive and as a result required an inclusive pre-school better equipped to deal with his special needs than his local school district. However, due to the expense of sending him out of district, administrators on Gus’s team pushed for Gus to go to the day-care across the street.

“The preschool across the street would not have been equipped with the tools and environment necessary to keep Gus and his classmates safe but it is a difficult position for the district when they have to meet IDEA requirements without sufficient IDEA funding. Still, it was critical to his education and his right to access an appropriate preschool.”

As costs for special education continue to rise and the cost burden continues to shift to local districts, it becomes extremely hard for schools to balance adequately meeting the needs of these students with other budgetary considerations and priorities. This means families like the Hansons have to work harder to ensure that their children are able to access the quality education they have a right to, and schools and teachers must struggle to figure out how to educate students with special needs without adequate financing. In the Hanson’s home town, this is particularly challenging as the town struggles to garner the resources from its own revenue.

Lack of Funding Constrains Resources

Across the country in Ocean Township, New Jersey, Superintendent Jim Stefankiewicz is far too familiar with working IDEA requirements into their already tight school budget. With the highest rates of autism in the country according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the costs of meeting IDEA requirements for all students in the state is particularly challenging.

“Over the last 8 years we have lost millions in funding for our schools and though our overall population has declined, the special education needs and the size of the population requiring these services has increased.”

Having seen the increase over his 20 year career in education, Jim attributes the increased demand to increased awareness and improved diagnostics in the New Jersey school system. Now the costs to the school system are extraordinary, especially when the school is unable to provide services in-house.

“When we are unable to provide a student with the services they need in our schools, we often have to send them somewhere outside the district, which costs our district as much as $80,000 per student per year. This, combined with court costs, makes it very difficult to provide the training and staffing we need to keep these students in our district with their peers.”

Still, having a reputation for strong support for students with learning disabilities, Ocean Township has attracted many families in search of special education services. The Township’s success has thus driven up its per pupil costs for education, limiting the amount of funding available for other activities in the district. Jim explains that when offsets are needed to meet IDEA compliance requirements, they look to reduce costs where they will have the least impact on their students.

“Often, this means deferred maintenance for our schools and equipment, or that we do not issue charters for new clubs, or we reduce coaching staff for our sports programs. It also means any new spending is hard to come by.”

Just this year, the Ocean Township Board of Education went to voters with a referendum to raise funds through new local taxes to support a $29 million audio system in the district’s three elementary schools. Fortunately, the township agreed to the increase that will help special and regular education students alike.

Committed to ensuring that special education students get the best education possible, Jim feels that there is much more that needs to be done to support students with disabilities in the district. Specifically, Jim would like to be able to provide the necessary training to both regular and special education staff to help students with learning disabilities remain in classrooms with their peers.

“The co-teaching model for special education has been proven to be more effective than the traditional model of segregating these students from the general population. However, with the support that we receive from IDEA, it remains cost-prohibitive. We simply cannot provide the training necessary to our faculty while maintaining basic IDEA requirements.”


1. https://sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/
2. https://www2.ed.gov/programs/osepgts/index.html
3. https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/policy-explainers/early-ed-prek-12/students-disabilities/