Comments on the Harkin Amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

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Comments on the Harkin Amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

November 30, 2001 2 min read

Authors: Krista Kafer and Brian Riedl

This evaluation has been prepared in response to an inquiry about the Harkin amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

With Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mitch Daniels predicting deficits until at least fiscal year 2005, the Harkin amendment would cost taxpayers an additional $158 billion over the next 10 years--an increase of 251 percent. By transforming the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) into an entitlement, Congress would set IDEA funding in stone, giving up the opportunity to oversee and alter IDEA spending during the regular annual appropriations process. It would also prevent the use of that money to reduce taxes, pay down the national debt, or address other educational priorities that may arise over the next decade.

Although Senator Harkin has tried to make his amendment acceptable by limiting IDEA's entitlement status to the next 10 years, history shows that once a program is designated an entitlement, it is virtually impossible for Congress to remove that designation. And therein lies the danger: Over the past 20 years entitlement spending has grown six times faster than discretionary spending. Thus, the $158 billion increase is not only more money over 10 years than the federal government has spent on all K-12 education over the past 35 years, but it could well end up serving as the down payment on yet another runaway entitlement. As we re-enter an era of deficits, the nation simply cannot afford to turn IDEA into an entitlement.

Moreover, creating an IDEA entitlement would make it less likely that Congress will enact policy reforms slated for next year's reauthorization. History proves that lawmakers rarely seek substantial changes in programs with permanent authorizations unless a financial crisis necessitates change. The Harkin amendment would impair Congress's ability to address such issues as overidentification and misidentification.

If special education designation guarantees additional funding, there is no incentive to seek non-IDEA solutions. In fact, there is a greater incentive to misidentify and overidentify students. According to the National Institutes of Health, many children who receive early identification and instruction can avoid special education designation. Early intervention could address the needs of over 50 percent of IDEA students. Research-based reading instruction alone could help many such students.

Overidentification of minority students is of particular concern. The Harvard University Civil Rights Project has found that African American children are nearly three times as likely as Caucasian children to be labeled mentally retarded and placed in special education.

Nor are the problems with IDEA limited to identification. Parents, teachers, and administrators continue to voice concerns with the implementation of the act. These issues are being considered by the President's newly formed IDEA Reform Commission, which will report its recommendations to Congress by April 30, 2002. Congress should have the opportunity to hear the commission's recommendations and to act upon them during the reauthorization process. The creation of an IDEA entitlement could render the commission's findings meaningless and hinder Congress from making the recommended reforms.

The cost of the Harkin amendment to the budget and to the reform process is too great. Such a price is not justifiable considering that disabled children are not even the primary beneficiaries of the legislation. The amendment would only require that schools use 45 percent of the additional funding for special education. The remaining 55 percent could be used for anything. In the words of the Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey (D-WI), "This is sold as being a big increase in handicapped education when, in fact, virtually half the money can be spent for other purposes."

Krista Kafer is the Senior Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation and Brian M. Riedl is the Grover M. Herman Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs.


Krista Kafer
Krista Kafer

Former Senior Education Policy Analyst

Brian Riedl
Brian Riedl

Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute