It’s Back to School (Funding) For Chris Van Hollen

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) speaking in Annapolis recently. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen wants the federal government to take a page from Maryland’s education playbook.

The Democratic lawmaker is rolling out a new bill on Tuesday to ensure increased federal education funding for students with disabilities. He says it’s part of a broader push that’s modeled after Maryland’s efforts in recent decades to overhaul spending on schools.

“We have an urgent need at every level of government to provide the resources necessary to ensure that every child gets a high-quality education,” Van Hollen told Maryland Matters in an interview Monday evening.

The new bill, titled the “IDEA Full Funding Act,” aims to ensure that Congress fully funds the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that was passed in 1975. That bill was an attempt to guarantee equal access to education for children with disabilities, but federal funding has consistently fallen short.

The measure “would put the federal government on a 10-year plan to close that gap and finally meet its promises, which should have been kept a long time ago but it’s better late than never and it’s time to do this now,” Van Hollen said.

Congress promised in 1975 to cover 40 percent of the average cost to educate a child with disabilities, according to the National Council on Disability. But the law was later amended to say that the government would pay a “maximum” of 40 percent and the federal government last year was paying less than half of what was originally promised, a 2018 council report submitted to the White House found.

In Maryland, the state received $206 million in IDEA funding in 2017, according to Van Hollen’s office. Under full funding, the state would have received $522 million that year – a gap of $316 million.

Van Hollen’s new bill has a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) is introducing companion legislation, which also has bipartisan support in the House.

The Maryland senator is also planning to soon re-introduce another education bill titled, Keep Our Promise to America’s Children and Teachers Act. The version he filed last Congress would put Congress on a path to fully fund Title I – which funds the highest-need schools in the country.

The school funding effort, Van Hollen said, is “really modeled after Maryland’s Thornton commission legislation. I was very involved with that when I was in the state legislature.”

The idea behind the Thornton Commission “was to make education funding a top priority and the way to do that in any budget process is to make that funding mandatory, so it’s not subject to the whims of the legislators in any particular year,” he said.

That commission, named after Alvin Thornton, a Howard University administrator and political science professor and Prince George’s County school board member, was created in 1999. The panel created an aid formula to ensure that school systems around Maryland had the resources necessary to meet the constitutional requirement for a quality education. Van Hollen as a state senator played a pivotal role in establishing the state formulas to fund the Thornton plan.

Now, another panel known as the Kirwan Commission – named for its chairman, former University System of Maryland chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan – is working on rewriting the state’s education funding formulas [see related story].

“I’m a strong supporter of those recommendations,” Van Hollen said of the Kirwan Commission. He added, “there are similar conversations going on in lots of states and so I think this is very timely.”

But, he said, “I also believe the federal government needs to do its part in this effort.”

Van Hollen said he’s optimistic that his legislation will get momentum on Capitol Hill. “There’s a growing recognition that the federal government has really fallen short on its promises,” he said. And “in this competitive global environment, people recognize that we need to make significant investments in education.”

To pay for his education bills, Van Hollen is looking to Wall Street.

He introduced legislation earlier this year with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that would impose a tax on certain trading transactions. “I envisioned it as a measure to provide funding for education broadly, but that includes this effort,” Van Hollen said.

Robin Bravender is Washington bureau chief for States Newsroom.

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