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Column: Renew commitment to kids with disabilities

In 1975, Congress pledged to provide critical federal investments to aid states and school districts in meeting their obligations to students with special needs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA authorized federal funding up to 40 percent of the additional cost of educating students with disabilities. Yet, Republicans and Democrats alike have repeatedly failed to keep that promise.

This shortfall in funding has profound consequences for children with disabilities, but also for their peers. I hear often from school districts struggling to offer special needs students the critical support they deserve, and about cuts to general education budgets to make up for the lack of funding. School administrators should not be forced to choose between dedicating necessary funds to special needs children or hiring additional teachers and purchasing new classroom supplies.

I strongly believe Congress must provide the funding schools were promised, and we should do so instead of creating new programs. As the representative of Minnesota’s 2nd District and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, I am on the front lines of the fight to help Washington keep faith with our nation’s greatest asset – our children.

Earlier this year, I visited Northfield High School to learn about the state of special education in our communities. Educators and a parent described the incredible work being done to prepare students with disabilities for bright futures, but they also highlighted challenges schools face because of the federal government’s refusal to honor its pledge. I am proud to have dedicated professionals and parents like those at Northfield High School and throughout the 2nd district join me in urging Congress to act.

Recently, I held a hearing in which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified on the administration’s policies and priorities for the Department of Education. Sadly, the administration has not recognized the need to prioritize special education funding. During the hearing, I shared with Duncan that the parents and teachers I meet aren’t asking for new competitive grants or funding for duplicative early childhood programs – they’re begging for more support for the nation’s most vulnerable students.

We must stop wasting taxpayer dollars on new and ineffective programs and instead work toward meeting our basic obligation to help prepare all of our students for success after high school. It’s time to reassess our education spending priorities.

If the federal government met its commitment to fully funding IDEA, Minnesota school districts would see an additional $290 million. To increase support for students with disabilities, I recently requested a $1.5 billion increase in IDEA funding for Fiscal Year 2015 from the House Appropriations Committee. While this request still falls short of the federal government’s promise, it is a meaningful increase that would generate significant new funding for schools nationwide – providing more opportunities for school leaders to strengthen special education, and, in turn, improve education of all students.

John Kline is the Chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He also serves on the House Armed Services Committee. He and his wife, Vicky, live in Burnsville.