Some educators and makers of assistive technologies are decrying a successful move by House Republicans to block $2.5 billion in guaranteed funding increases for students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Advocates of the increase said the Republicans’ move will hamper schools’ efforts to purchase costly but effective new technologies aimed at helping these students excel in a traditional classroom environment.

“Assistive technology is very expensive, [and] schools often are dependent on funding from the government or other grant resources to help pay for it,” said Bob Moore, executive director of instructional technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas.

The legislators’ actions “disadvantage all students from receiving the educational opportunities to which they have a right,” he added.

On Nov. 30, House Republicans defeated a proposal that would have guaranteed annual increases of $2.5 billion over the next six years in federal funding for special education.

Saying they do want to fund the program eventually, GOP lawmakers expressed concern that the money could wind up coming from a program aimed at helping economically disadvantaged children. “Why would we want to pit poor children against disabled children?” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Among the large group of disabled-rights advocates gathered outside the Capitol building to show support for fully funding IDEA were a number of parents and special educators.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who cosponsored the funding amendment with Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said he had talked to several parents waiting to get into the hearing. “You think life is tough?” Harkin said. “Go and talk to those people out there.”

Last spring the Senate approved the special education measure, which would have guaranteed annual $2.5 billion increases for IDEA, specifying that the money be kept safe from the yearly appropriations process.

It included $8.8 billion next year for special education programs, and total funding would have reached just over $21 billion in 2007, the last year of the guaranteed increases.

President George W. Bush asked Congress to increase IDEA spending by $1 billion. House appropriators raised that figure to $1.4 billion, but the money is not guaranteed to increase each year.

Opponents of the guaranteed money said it could lead schools to place more students in special education classes instead of getting them help in regular classrooms.

Boehner said the debate should wait until next year, when IDEA is due for reauthorization in Congress. He and others also said the system should be overhauled before more money is poured into it. A presidential commission on special education is due to report to Bush in April.

School systems have long complained that the federal government requires them to educate children with disabilities but doesn’t give them enough money for expensive evaluations, equipment, and services.

IDEA, enacted in 1975, called for Washington to provide 40 percent of funding for disabled youngsters’ education. This year, the federal government provided about 16 percent, or $6.3 billion. States and school districts share a much larger burden than the original legislation intended.

“We have failed to meet that guarantee, and we have failed year after year,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

About 6 million children receive special education funding, which helps in part to pay for school instruction and assistive technologies for students with disabilities.

In a document about assistive technology published by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), researchers said, “Computer technology—including specialized hardware or software that simulates the human voice reading the computer screen or renders hard-copy output into Braille, designed to help persons with disabilities perform daily tasks—has changed the lives of countless individuals with visual impairments.”

A number of highly effective technologies are now available to assist blind or visually impaired students, according to the AFB.

Braille displays, for example, operate by raising and lowering different combinations of pins electronically to produce Braille words that correspond to what appears on a computer screen.

The displays—which sit on the user’s desk, often next to the standard computer keyboard—can show up to 80 characters that change continuously as the sight-impaired user touches the screen. But they cost between $3,500 and $15,000, depending on the number of characters displayed.

“Assistive technology is so critical for blind kids—it is truly the difference between accessing the curriculum or not,” said Paul Schroeder, vice president of government relations at AFB. “But obviously this technology is expensive.”

That’s why many educators say they are disappointed in Congress’ latest action.

Ken Eastwood, assistant superintendent for instruction and technology at the Oswego City School District in New York, says assistive technologies are not a major expense at his district, but they are a “major headache.”

“Most of the software and hardware is specialized, and it is very difficult to support it with limited staff,” Eastwood said. “Any funding helps, but if the federal government wants true implementation [of assistive technologies to help students with disabilities], it will not happen without financial support and increased standardization of products and hardware.”

Related links:
United States Senate

United States House of Representatives

American Federation for the Blind