WASHINGTON – Caroline County Board of Education member C. Tolbert Rowe had a personal reason for coming to Washington on Tuesday to lobby for increased federal funding for special education.
Rowe’s daughter is in a special education program, but he said severe lack of federal funds has hampered her progress.
“I feel like she’s been cheated,” Rowe said of daughter Kelsey, 12. “She’s been very lucky with the people who’ve helped her, but they could’ve done more with more money.”
Rowe was one of 13 school officials from around the state who came to Washington to meet with Maryland’s congressional delegation. The officials, at least one from each of the state’s congressional districts, made personal appeals for more school funds and urged opposition to President Bush’s school voucher proposal.
They were some of the hundreds who came for a National School Boards Association conference at which board members from around the country lobbied their lawmakers for billions of dollars in new federal aid.
At the top of their agenda was a call for the federal government to hold up its end of the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, under which the feds pledged to fund 40 percent of the added costs local districts face for special education.
The National School Boards Association said the government is currently only paying 15 percent of the extra costs, and it is seeking an increase of at least $2.5 billion a year until the government is paying its share.
“Local boards are not trying to get out of the mandate, but the federal government hasn’t kept up with its part of the bargain,” said Eric Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
Maryland officials at the conference said that state funds for special education have stayed virtually the same for the past 11 years, while costs have skyrocketed, leaving almost all the burden on the local level.
Maryland Education Department spokesman Neil Greenberger said the cost of special education to local districts “is one of the greatest dilemmas facing education in America today.”
The Maryland group was met by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Baltimore, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, as well as aides to the other seven members of the state’s House delegation.
Sarbanes acknowledged the need to fund education so “students could perform better with more resources.” But he said the 40 percent target for federal support of special education is “a significant amount of money and it won’t fly well with sweeping tax cuts” proposed by President Bush.
The school officials also pushed for:
— reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which calls for increased funding to train teachers, expand early childhood development programs and increase flexibility on the local level to transfer funds among different programs.
— an increase of $2 billion to strengthen the Head Start program and redirect it toward an academic program, rather than a social program.
— block grants to be directed more frequently to local school districts, instead of sending the money to state governments to dole out.
“Politics would get in the way” if it was left up to the states, said Reggie Felton, a Montgomery County school board member.
Both Hoyer and Sarbanes agreed with the conference crowd that vouchers would harm local school districts.
“Vouchers or some form of moving the most ambitious students and parents out of public schools is not the answer,” Hoyer said. “Parents use vouchers as the answer to being angry about a failing school system.”