top of page

Funding Doesn’t Have to Be a Barrier to Inclusive Education

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

One of the most common reasons people give as a barrier to inclusive education is funding. And it makes sense, right? If we want a genuinely inclusive education for our students, we have to pay for it. Except funding doesn’t have to be a barrier. 

Inclusive education is about changing an educational system to be flexible enough to serve its students, rather than merely throwing money or staffing at an already burdened system.

According to TASH’s resource, “Dispelling the Myths of Inclusive Education,” the cost of inclusive education can best be viewed as a “cost-benefit analysis.” And there have been no fiscal analyses that show inclusion is more expensive than segregation. School districts may even make more efficient use of their money when they educate all their students with disabilities within their home districts, rather than funding transportation, overhead, and other non-instructional costs of out-of-district programs. When the benefits of inclusive education balance out the adverse effects of segregation, the cost-benefit ratio is clearly on the side of inclusive education.

School districts like West Linn-Wilsonville near Portland, Oregon, and Cecil County in Maryland know that the only way to sustain inclusive schools is with a phased approach rather than attempting to remove the infrastructure without thoughtfully planning for systems change.

In an article from the AASA, The School Superintendents Association blog called “The Only Way to Fly is Inclusively,” administrators Carl Roberts and Carolyn Teigland explain that their vision was to “successfully include 100 percent of special education students in the regular education setting to the fullest extent possible.” And that all students would “receive the services they require in their neighborhood school, allowing them to attend school with their age-appropriate peers.” Cecil County’s inclusive journey began in the early 2000s, while West Linn-Wilsonville started nearly a decade ago, and both continue through today.

While administrators concede that the initial investment in training staff and sustaining inclusive practices can be expensive, it levels out and does not compound itself. For instance, from FY2008 to FY2017, the special education budget from Cecil County remained mostly stable with a 12% increase, while national education funding per pupil increased by 15% during the same period. 

While state and local education systems provide the bulk of funding for school districts, the federal government provides about one-third of the special education cost it originally promised. Here is a little history of how the federal government got involved with providing any funding at all.

Before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), lawmakers included students with disabilities in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA / Title I) funding in 1965 because students were considered “educationally deprived” and, therefore, eligible for compensatory education. This, of course, was before the guarantee for students with disabilities to receive a “free and appropriate education.” Later, in 1966, Title VI of the ESEA separately authorized states’ funding to educate students with disabilities.

In 1970, the ESEA Amendments (P.L. 91-230) repealed Title VI and created a separate law, the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), to combine funding into grants for states. Still, most students with disabilities were not receiving services, and the funding didn’t match the authorized amount (something current stakeholders know about all too well).

By 1974, more states were obligated to educate students with disabilities but were unable due to the lack of funding. Early versions of the law that would become the IDEA were proposed by lawmakers from 1972 to 1974 but were opposed by the Nixon Administration. Then, Senator Charles Mathias (R-MD) suggested a different funding formula that used a state’s population for ages 3-21. The “Mathias amendment” tripled the previous funding attempts but was only intended as an “emergency measure.” The law was passed in 1974 but was underfunded (with approximately 15% of the originally appropriated funds).

The law was reintroduced during the 94th Congress in 1975 and included incremental increases to funding levels beginning with 5% in 1978, increasing to 40% in 1982, of the national average per-pupil expenditure (APPE).

Gerald Ford signed the law that would become the IDEA on Nov. 29th, 1975. In the 40 years since Ford signed the law, funding has never come close to 40% of the national APPE. Since 1975, IDEA has been reauthorized five times, most recently in 2004 (16 years ago, y’all). By the 1990s, it became apparent that a disproportionate number of students of color were being identified with a disability.

In 1997, a change from a formula based on the number of children receiving special education to a formula based on the total population of children in each state and the percentage of those children living in poverty.

The new formula guaranteed states a minimum amount per year. If the states got more, it was because 85% was awarded based on their population (ages 3-21), and the remaining 15% was based on the state’s percentage of children in poverty. While there were some tweaks to the law in 2004, the funding formula has remained the same since 1997. 

The proposed federal contribution for FY2021 is approximately $1,739 for the 7.4 million children with disabilities (about 13% of the APPE). For FY2019, the amount appropriated for IDEA (Part B) accounted for approximately 14.3% of the national APPE, less than half of the 40% full funding level.

Interestingly, during the Obama administration in FY2009, IDEA appropriations approached the full funding amount more than before. With the addition of federal stimulus dollars, IDEA funding rose to almost 35% of the APPE.

With the current renewed focus on equity in the United States, it is fascinating that some of the foundational elements of supporting students with disabilities were linked with civil rights legislation. 

It remains to be seen whether a Biden administration will change the funding formula or advocate for fully funding the additional costs of educating students with disabilities. Though it should be reemphasized, funding should not be the barrier to inclusive education that skeptics think it is. School districts like West Linn-Wilsonville and Cecil County show us that.  



The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Funding: A Primer (2019)

U.S. Dept. of Ed Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Summary


Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.

bottom of page