Congress Tweaks Special Education Mandates

States still required to keep up spending

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States that run afoul of federal rules for special education funding will still be punished—though not forever—under a technical but important tweak to state-spending-level requirements known as "maintenance of effort."

The change, which was crafted with the help of the U.S. Department of Education, was included in the broad federal spending bill, or continuing resolution, for the rest of fiscal year 2013, which Congress passed last month.

Under maintenance of effort, states can't cut their own education spending below the amount they spent the previous year and still tap federal dollars for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, unless they get special permission from the department.

Keeping up special education spending is usually not a problem for states, but it became an issue during the recent recession. South Carolina, in particular, has been at loggerheads with the federal department over the issue.

The state sued the Education Department in connection with special education funding after the department withheld $36 million in special education aid in October. That reduction was slated to stay in place permanently, until Congress and the Obama administration intervened.

'Common Sense'

The administration and lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending, added a provision to the recent spending legislation clarifying that while states out of compliance with the law will still see their aid reduced, such cuts won't be in place in permanently.

Instead, such a reduction would just be for the time that a state was out of compliance and didn't get a waiver. Once the problem had been fixed, the state could go back to its regular spending levels.

The new provision goes on to explain that the funding withheld would still go to the IDEA, just not to the offending state. Any money taken away from a state that didn't keep up its end of the spending bargain would be split among states that did, as a kind of bonus. But the extra funds to those states would be one-time allotments.

"Without this language, these funds for special education and related services would lapse and be unavailable for the children with disabilities they are intended to serve," Michael Yudin, the Education Department's acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said in an email.

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South Carolina isn't the only state that the language helps. Kansas lost $2 million in IDEA funding last year for similar reasons. New Jersey and New Mexico may find themselves in similar straits if their pending requests for waivers of the maintenance-of-effort rule aren't approved. The change pleases Mick Zais, the South Carolina schools chief.

"Congress, led by the South Carolina federal delegation, has heard my plea for common sense regarding the federal government's penalty imposed on South Carolina's children," he said in a news release.

The action "repeals the absurd perpetual penalty that withheld $36,202,909 in funds used to provide services to students with disabilities," Mr. Zais said. "This is a victory for students with disabilities in South Carolina and across the nation."

Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, also is happy with how things turned out. "It's absolutely a good compromise," she said in an interview.

The Council for Exceptional Children, based in Arlington, Va., also supported the change.

"We can't afford to lose one penny that can help provide our nation's children and youth with disabilities the appropriate supports and services they deserve under the law," Lindsay Jones, the senior director of policy and advocacy services for the CEC, said in an email.

Vol. 32, Issue 27, Page 19

Published in Print: April 3, 2013, as Congress Tweaks Special Education Funding Mandates
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