“A growing body of research finds that states that have achieved both equity and adequacy see stronger achievement and graduation rates, which translate into societal savings in lower rates of crime, incarceration and welfare and higher rates of employment, wages and taxes.” (Forbes, 2019)

IDEA and Special Education Funding

IDEA and its amendments sought to change the state of education for students with disabilities by requiring that states and localities provide “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). In conjunction with this requirement, the legislation gave the federal government permission to use up to 40% of K-12 per-student spending to achieve FAPE, a percentage it has yet to reach with current funding standing at 14%. There are two issues that have to be solved to ensure that special education meets the needs of students with disabilities and their families: 1) Ensuring that full funding reaches the schools and students who most need it and 2) Ensuring that when it does reach them that it improves student outcomes. Federal and state governments, districts, and schools all must examine carefully the outputs of special education students in relation to IDEA spending and its impact on educational achievement as well as its impact on income, family, poverty levels, and incarceration.

“We find that the existing formula results in substantial disparities among states in available funding and systematically disadvantages large states and states with more poor, disabled, and non-white children. Moreover, we show that simply adding increasing federal funding without considering the formula used to calculate state grants will perpetuate existing funding disparities.” (Kolbe et al., 2022)

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Online tools for special education

Use math and reading assessments to drive special education interventions, real-time progress monitoring, and the ability to write truly individualized IEPs.
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Issue 1: Inadequate Funding and an Outdated Formula for Distribution of Funding

The federal government allocates IDEA funds to the state and the state distributes the funds to its districts. While IDEA finds that full funding should be 40% of K-12 per-student spending, the current percentage is 14%. Additionally to prevent over-identification of students for special education programs and to ensure that states don’t amplify needs to get more federal funds, the federal government in 1999 created a complex formula including census data to ensure parity in state distribution and this same formula has to be used by states to distribute funds to districts. This formula has never been updated.

Issue 2: More Funding Doesn’t Equal Better Outcomes

While we contemplate how to fulfill the promise of IDEA, it’s critical to ensure a strong relationship between IDEA funding and student outcomes. Coleman’s Report on the Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966) mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1984, forever disrupted a common belief that educational funding has a direct impact on student achievement. In short, Coleman found that funding for education did not necessarily ensure that students would benefit. “A focus on outputs, he believed, allowed the measurement of educational effectiveness, that is how well schools produced certain levels of achievement in racially, socio-economically, and geographically diverse students.[ii]” (Gordon, 2017).

Three Variables Necessary to IDEA Funding Alignment to Outcomes

IDEA funding for special education promises positive outputs for special education students  given the presence of these three variables : 1) an accurate diagnostic assessment that effectively identifies students with disabilities; 2) an equitable dispersal of adequate funding to districts and school across states for instruction and services; and 3) ongoing measurement of student outcomes to ensure that special education interventions correlate to positive results.

Variable 1: Accurate Special Education Diagnostic Assessment

Without an effective diagnostic assessment, we have no way to know if funding is reaching the right students in a timely manner. Research indicates that students of color and students from lower economic tiers are misidentified as needing special education. Gorski’s research found “that African Americans and Latino students were much less likely than White or Asian students with the same test scores to be placed in high ability classrooms” (Gorski & Zenkov, 2014).

Special education assessments must be designed around the individual student, not according to their grade level. It must pinpoint student strengths and primary learning deficits, even when multiple years above or below grade level and deliver granular data to help teachers make informed personalized learning decisions. Without using this technology, funding may support vague instruction not aligned to student deficits. And of course, administrators and teachers must then use data, not their own assumptions, previous performance reports, or stereotypes, to determine whether students belong in Tier 1, 2, or 3.

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Let's Go Learn's math and reading diagnostic assessments

The Let’s Go Learn DORA and ADAM assessments are fully K-12 and K-9 diagnostic regardless of the student’s grade. And their multiple sub-tests within each of these assessments are able to directly tell teachers what students can and cannot do in the actual scope and sequences of math and reading instruction. Districts with leadership that understands the need for true diagnostics as opposed to screeners for students at-risk or those with IEPs are able to get positive outcomes for their students.

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Variable 2: Equitable Dispersal of Full Special Education Funding

In a statement about the outdated formula for funding distribution of federal funds, Tammy Kolbe writes: “We find that the existing formula results in substantial disparities among states in available funding and systematically disadvantages large states and states with more poor, disabled, and non-white children” (Kolbe et al, 2022).  Instead Kolbe research proposes that federal monies be distributed directly to LEAs, much as Title I grants are allocated. Removing the state as the distributor carves a direct and equitable path to the districts and schools with accurately identified students with disabilities.

In an attempt to provide full IDEA funding, the House and Senate reintroduced the IDEA Full Funding Act in 2021, which would put the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grants to states program on a 10-year glidepath to “full funding.” The Full Funding act would give the federal government a decade to reach the 40% spending limit.  This CEC homepage states that the bill has support from over 85 education, disability, and civil rights organizations, and  CEC president Dennis Cavitt writes:  “Fully funding IDEA would provide districts with the resources needed to ensure all children and youth with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education, unlocking the full potential of the law” (CEC website, 2022).

Variable 3: Ongoing Measurement of Student Outcomes

Any equation for positive outcomes for students with disabilities has to include sustainability. As the age-old adage states: What gets measured gets done. Administrators and  educators must develop or find assessments that include both full diagnostics and smaller “chunked” assessments for progress monitoring purposes. Special education progress monitoring tools such as Let’s Go Learn’s tools provide standards-based progress monitoring with formative assessments that are vertically scaled into the original datasets and ongoing tracking of student academic performance from the initial evaluation with no data collection required by teachers.

IDEA Funding Benefits Every American Citizen

“When schools look at special education programs through a return-on-investment lens, both taxpayers and students win.” (Levenson, 2011/12)

Full funding and equitable distribution of IDEA funding benefits not just students with disabilities but it benefits the entire nation. Roberto Ventura in his blog in the The Borgen Projects finds: “The economic benefits of education are undeniably important to the U.S. In the country alone, GDP has potential to increase by $32 trillion, or 14.6 percent if all students are brought up to basic mastery by the National Assessment of Educational Progress standards” (Ventura, 2018).

Additionally, just-out research by Cruz and her associates discovered that well-funded special education programs benefit students with disabilities and students without disabilities in low- and high-poverty schools (Cruz et al., 2022).

In his research on positive outcomes from increased school funding, Kirabo Jackson (2015) found that the sweet spot for special education spending is found by setting a goal to reform funding for equity and outcome and then by increasing spending on instruction and support services. Jackson found that this spending results in a return of investment of 1:2.  Long term effects include higher graduation rates and increased future earnings. For students in lower income families, the statistics speak for themselves:

  • 10% higher graduation rates
  • 13% higher personal income and 17% higher family income
  • 6% less likely to stay in lower income tiers

How K-12 Mental Health Support Saves Lives & Reduces Long-Term State Financial Costs

Mental health support ranks as a high , if not the highest, priority for IDEA funding for special education needs when mental health issues “interfere” with academic progress (Offner, 2018).  In addition to the many benefits of effective use of  IDEA funding, early detection and support – particularly in the COVID era – can have long term effects on children and their families and on federal and state financial health. “…Everyday lives for individuals across the globe have been severely affected due to COVID-19. Khushboo Patel warns of the impact of COVID on students: “Experiencing negative emotions, changes in moods, and changes in the sleeping and eating patterns of children put them at a greater risk of experiencing relapse of mental illness as well as exacerbating existing mental health issues ” (Tandon, 2020; Patel, 2020).

In a letter to the Governors, Miguel Cardona and Xavier Becerra, Education Secretary and Deputy Secretary, indicate concurrence with Patel’s sentiment, writing: “Children and youth with intellectual or developmental disabilities and those with prior childhood trauma are at particular risk for pandemic-related mental health challenges, as are those who have faced previous discrimination in the health care system, including children and youth of color, immigrant children, children with disabilities, and those who are LGBTQ+.” (Cardona & Becerra.2022)

Even before COVID, McDaid found that evidence-based “targeted” programs that support children’s mental health created a positive ROI: “In the United States, targeted programs were shown to generate a positive return on investment, taking into account benefits to the health, education, and criminal justice sectors, as well as the labor market upon reaching adulthood. These ranged between $1.80 and $3.30 for every $1 spent on programs targeted at children with behavioral problems (109)” (McDaid, 2019).

Early detection and evidence-based programs that target PreK-12 children can prevent or mitigate drastic social and behavioral problems:

  • It is far easier to address the mental and medical needs of youth under 18 (Blake, 2012) than those over 18, after which medical treatment is only required when a person is suicidal or incarcerated.  Providing care early on saves lives.
  • Students with disabilities receive training to maximize their financial independence when they graduate (Mittapalli, 2009).
  • Mass shooters overwhelmingly were missed in K-12 due to insufficient funding or processes in place to catch all the kids needing help.  MTSS/RTI programs when implemented correctly can help identify students at risk of committing violence: “more than half of K-12 shooters have a history of psychological problems (e.g., depression, suicidal ideation, bipolar disorder, and psychotic episodes)” (Kowalski, 2022).
  • K-12 students who overcome academic and mental health challenges are happier and do better in life (Milsom, 2006).


The Big Lies of School Reform : Finding Better Solutions for the Future of Public Education, edited by Paul C. Gorski, and Kristien Zenkov, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nu/detail.action?docID=1683247.Jackson, C. K., R. Johnson, and C. Persico. 2015. The effects of school spending on educational and economic outcomes: Evidence from school finance reforms. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 131(1): 157–218

Valarie Blake. (2012). Minors Refusal of Life-Saving Therapies. AMA Journal of Ethics. https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/minors-refusal-life-saving-therapies/2012-10

Miguel Cardona & X. Becerra. (2022) Key Policy Letters. US Department of Education. https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/secletter/220324.html

Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). (2021). IDEA Full Funding Act Reintroduced in the House and Senate. https://exceptionalchildren.org/blog/idea-full-funding-act-reintroduced-house-and-senate

RA Cruz, Lee J-H, Aylward AG, Kramarczuk Voulgarides C. The Effect of School Funding on Opportunity Gaps for Students With Disabilities: Policy and Context in a Diverse Urban District. Journal of Disability Policy Studies. 2022;33(1):3-14. doi:10.1177/1044207320970545

Linda Darling-Hammond. (2019). America’s School Funding Struggle: How We’re Robbing Our Future By Under-Investing In Our Children. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lindadarlinghammond/2019/08/05/americas-school-funding-struggle-how-were-robbing-our-future-by-under-investing-in-our-children/?sh=23131ba85eaf

Leah Gordon. (2017). The Coleman Report and Its Critics: The Contested Meanings of Educational Equality in the 1960s and 1970s. Organization of American Historians. http://www.processhistory.org/gordon-coleman-report/

Heather Hill. (2016) 50 years ago, one report introduced Americans to the black-white achievement gap. Here’s what we’ve learned since. Chalkbeat. https://www.chalkbeat.org/2016/7/13/21103280/50-years-ago-one-report-introduced-americans-to-the-black-white-achievement-gap-here-s-what-we-ve-le#:~:text=In%20some%20respects%2C%20Coleman’s%20analysis,inequality%20on%20tests%20of%20academic

C Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C Johnson, and Claudia Persico. (2015). The effects of school spending on educational and economic outcomes: Evidence from school finance reforms. National Bureau of Economic Research. https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w20847/w20847.pdf

Kolbe, Tammy, Elizabeth Dhuey, and Sara Menlove Doutre. (Forthcoming 2022). More Money is Not Enough: (Re)Considering Policy Proposals to Increase Federal Funding for Special Education. American Journal of Education 129 (1).

Robin M. Kowalski, Ph.D. (2022). School shootings: What we know about them, and what we can do to prevent them. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2022/01/26/school-shootings-what-we-know-about-them-and-what-we-can-do-to-prevent-them/

David McDaid, A-La Park, Kristian Wahlbeck. (2019). The Economic Case for the Prevention of Mental Illness. Annual Review of Public Health 2019 40:1, 373-389. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040617-013629

Milsom, A. (2006). Creating Positive School Experiences for Students with Disabilities. Professional School Counseling Journal , October 2006, 10(1), 66-72.

Kavita Mittapalli. (2009). Financial Literacy for Youth with Disabilities. US Dept of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ODEP/research/FinancialLiteracyforYWD_IssuePaper.pdf

Moser Opitz, Schnepel, S., Krähenmann, H., Jandl, S., Felder, F., & Dessemontet, R. S. (2020). The impact of special education resources and the general and the special education teacher’s competence on pupil mathematical achievement gain in inclusive classrooms. International Journal of Inclusive Education, ahead-of-print(ahead-of-print), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2020.1821451

Office of Elementary & Secondary Education. (2022). Supporting the Mental Health Needs of All Students with American Rescue Plan Funds. https://oese.ed.gov/files/2022/04/Mental-Health-Fact-Sheet.pdf

Deborah Offner. (2018). Ensuring Your Child is Supported at School. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/May-2018/Ensuring-Your-Child-is-Supported-at-School#:~:text=Under%20the%20Americans%20with%20Disabilities,to%20make%20expected%20academic%20progress.

Khushboo Patel. (2020) Mental health implications of COVID-19 on children with disabilities

Asian J Psychiatr. 2020 Dec; 54: 102273. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7330593/

Tandon R. The COVID-19 pandemic, personal reflections on editorial responsibility. Asian J. Psychiatry. 2020 doi: 10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102100.

Roberto Carlos Ventura. (2018). The Economic Benefits of Education. The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/economic-benefits-of-education/