Underfunded mandate

April 14, 2003

MOSTLY LOST in the historic furor two years ago over the Republican U.S. senator who left the GOP and handed control of the Senate to the Democrats was his reason for doing it.

The last straw in a long line of frustrations, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont said at the time, was President Bush's refusal to guarantee the federal government would make good on its 1975 promise to pay nearly half the cost of educating disabled children.

Mr. Jeffords' dramatic gesture caused quite an upheaval. But it failed to correct the fundamental unfairness of a system in which the federal government requires public school systems to educate children with a broad spectrum of physical and psychological impairments but contributes only about 18 percent of the cost nationwide.

Maryland was recently warned it faces sanctions for failing to meet federal dictates that nearly all special education students spend most of their time in regular classes. But that failure can be blamed at least in part on a shortage of federal funds, which cover only 11 percent of Maryland's special education costs.

This may not be a pure example of what is known in Congresspeak as an "unfunded mandate." But certainly it qualifies as an "underfunded" one, acknowledged Delaware Rep. Michael N. Castle, House sponsor of a measure to update the 1975 law.

On behalf of the Republican leadership, Mr. Castle has proposed that the federal government gradually fulfill its promise to pay 40 percent of annual special education costs over the next seven years. But he has resisted the appeals of many Democrats, special education advocates - and Mr. Jeffords - to make that money flow to the states automatically. Instead, he would leave the year-to-year spending decisions to the discretion of Congress.

In theory, that makes sense. There are already too many federal "entitlement" programs into which the money pours annually without meaningful congressional review or reform.

But this is a Congress that is spending so much on making war abroad and cutting taxes at home, there's less and less available in discretionary funds for domestic needs.

And, as a practical matter, disabled children already have the federally ordered "entitlement" of a public school education. The only debate now is how much the federal government will contribute to its cost.

Child advocates as well as state education officials find much else to like in the update legislation. They cite improved procedures for identifying special education students, increased emphasis on preschool programs, clarified discipline provisions and a reduction of the paperwork that burdens the diminishing pools of special education teachers.

As the bill makes its way through the legislative process, lawmakers should improve it with a financing compromise that provides an ample and reliable revenue source but retains periodic congressional review.

In fairness to both the students and the teachers, Congress needs to come up with a more reliable funding mechanism than the political equivalent of a senator holding his breath until he turns blue.

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