Is our special education funding system failing students?

Special education funding is a hodgepodge of federal, state and local policies and funding decisions that often leave children in need without adequate services, according to a new report from the National Education Policy Center.

“Today’s challenges for special education funding are rooted in a complex regulatory and policy environment that reflects little forethought about who can and will pay special education costs,” according to a summary of the research brief funded by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. It continues:

“Despite the fact that states and school districts are legally required to ensure a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities as a condition of accepting federal funding, the federal government does little to fund the special education that students with disabilities receive. This places the overwhelming burden on states and localities to implement and pay for special education programs.

“The result is a diffuse funding system in which almost all states fail to provide enough funding to cover the cost of special education in their local districts.”

The brief by Tammy Kolbe of the University of Vermont examines the complex “and largely incoherent” policy framework that creates this precarious system for funding special education.

Funding Special Education: Charting a Path that Confronts Complexity and Crafts Coherence describes how increased federal funding should be packaged with a new framework for federal policy that would establish a fair and effective system for funding special education.

Kolbe provides specific and immediate steps for federal policymakers, with the goal of moving the country closer to a new, more coherent national policy framework grounded in thoughtful consideration of what special education should cost, who should pay the costs, and how best to align funding models with policy goals for identifying and providing appropriate educational opportunities for children with disabilities.

Find Funding Special Education: Charting a Path that Confronts Complexity and Crafts Coherence, by Tammy Kolbe, at:

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit the NEPC at: