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Kline Op-ed in the Star Tribune: A promise made to our children should be a promise kept
Before adding new unfunded mandates, let's fully fund IDEA.

The following op-ed was published online by the Star Tribune on September 30, 2009.

As students throughout Minnesota settle into a new school year, area schools, like many around the country, are coping with the stifling effects of the recession. School districts throughout the state are facing multimillion-dollar deficits, and Minnesotans feel the pressure of financial shortfalls on our communities and our students.

Some of the factors leading to these cuts are out of our control, but some should not be. Since being elected to Congress in 2002, I have focused my attention on ensuring the federal government keeps its financial commitments to our nation's schools and removing some of the most burdensome requirements that come from Washington.

I strongly believe Congress can and should provide the funding schools were promised under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- or IDEA. And Congress should ensure we do so before we even consider creating new programs.

Almost 35 years ago Congress authorized IDEA to ensure children with disabilities would receive the same educational opportunities as their peers; along with IDEA came a promise to fund 40 percent of the excess cost of special education and related services. However, since 1975 we have never met that promise. In fact, we have never even come close. Even with this year's one-time boost in stimulus funding, which will disappear in a little more than a year, we still fall far short of our guarantee.

Most Minnesotans know what this means for individual schools and districts. I have heard from too many educators and administrators forced to decide between paying for new textbooks or increasing teacher salaries. While fully funding the federal share of IDEA will not provide an endless pot of gold, it will free up hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be dedicated to the most pressing needs in individual schools. That funding would enable schools across America to direct limited resources to address their specific needs -- whether it is state-of-the-art classrooms, additional teachers or new textbooks -- and make it possible for teachers and administrators to focus on the important job of providing the best education possible for all our children.

Yet instead of delivering full funding to IDEA, Congress is once again creating new programs, mandates and obligations that will further stretch already limited resources. Already this year, the House has passed legislation that puts the federal government in the school construction business, dramatically expands its role in the day care and early childhood education business, and reshapes the approach to job training through new community college initiatives -- each of which carries a multibillion-dollar price tag.

And history suggests that once created, federal programs do not go away, instead adding billions more in entitlement spending each year. Congress and the president have done this while funding IDEA at last year's level -- freezing the percentage of excess costs at 17 percent -- and cutting funding for the Title I program by $1.5 billion.

While these new programs may be beneficial, we have not seen evidence of their success. Challenging economic times are not the time for new and expensive experiments that siphon funds from existing programs and impose massive, unfunded mandates on state and local school officials.

Instead, we should devote our limited resources -- both time and energy -- to those programs with which schools are already required by law to comply.

For almost seven years I have worked to persuade my colleagues to keep their promise to our nation's schools, and I will continue my fight as the senior Republican on the Education and Labor Committee.

Rep. John Kline, of Lakeville, a Republican, represents Minnesota's Second District in the U.S. House.

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