IDEA leaves schools especially needy

Along with teaching English at Chico High School, Eric Nilsson is completing his third year as the project director for the Smaller Learning Communities Grant. The goals of the grant are to enhance student achievement and connection to the school community.

The federal government has failed in its commitment to fund special education. In the past seven years, educating special-needs children has cost the Chico Unified School District a staggering $43.1 million—that’s right, $43.1 million—and we are not alone.

The federal government promised to fund special education at 40 percent but, on average, has delivered on only 12 percent. This underfunding is typical of school districts across the nation as they meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA).

In the 2007-08 school year alone, the encroachment on CUSD’s general fund is $9 million. About 12 percent of every general-fund dollar is used to pay for the excess cost of special-education services. For 2008-09, the district may lose $5.5 million of general operating revenue as a result of the governor’s proposed cuts. Despite these losses, the district cannot reduce programs and services to the special-needs population.

If the federal government had delivered on its commitment, we would not be faced with the very difficult decisions related to cutting vital programs and personnel.

The underfunding of special education has been growing every year. In CUSD, these are the numbers:

2001-02—$3 million.
2002-03—$4.8 million.
2003-04—$5.1 million.
2004-05—$6.4 million.
2005-06—$6.9 million.
2006-07—$7.9 million.
2007-08—$9 million.

We, the public, have committed, through our state constitution, to provide a free and appropriate education for every child who walks through our schools’ doors. Indeed, we know it lies at the heart of our democracy.

We are very effective at providing that education for young people who qualify for special education. This is the irony: Because we are committed to helping all young people, and because the mandate to do this for special education is underfunded by the federal government, all our students and our community realize the adverse effects.

All of us together need to act now. “All of us” refers to district leadership, the school board, teachers, students, parents, legislators, classified staff and unions—we must demand that the federal government deliver on the promise to fully fund the IDEA mandate.

Certainly, we share common ground: the fundamental idea that a quality education provides for the well-being of our children and provides us all hope for today and for the future. For inexplicable reasons, our federal government has chosen not to deliver on that hope. In fact, it is acting in ways contrary.

Please join together to reverse this unacceptable trend. Make the federal government accountable for its promise.