Budget & Finance

Spending on Special Ed. in Some Districts Plunged This Year. Budget Cuts Could Be Next

By Mark Lieberman — May 04, 2021 7 min read
An Issaquah School District school bus waits at an intersection near where a rally to encourage wider opening of in-person learning was being held on Feb. 24, 2021, in Issaquah, Wash.. Students in kindergarten and lower-elementary grades recently returned to school in the district under a hybrid in-person learning program, but older elementary, middle-, and high school students are still being taught remotely.
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State spending on special education has increased by more than $2 billion during the last decade due to demographic shifts and other factors.

Though advocates and parents have long argued that spending is still not enough, districts and states rarely struggle to meet a maintenance of effort clause in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act which requires schools to spend at least the same amount on special education as it did during the previous year.

But that could change this year.

Schools faced unprecedented challenges delivering instruction and support to students with disabilities this year amid the worldwide pandemic—and the costs of providing those services evolved as well, leaving some districts at risk of violating the federal special education law.

The Parkrose district in rural Oregon, which was in remote learning mode for most of the year, spent $1.7 million less than usual on transportation and services from external providers for students with disabilities. Several districts in Washington state hired fewer substitute teachers for special education, because fewer substitutes than usual have been willing to work. Other schools have relied less than usual on paraprofessionals and instructional support personnel, or deployed them in different ways that cost less money.

Districts contend they’ve served students with disabilities to the best of their ability during a public health crisis that challenged those efforts at every turn. The outcomes were far from perfect, as evidenced by a Government Accountability Office report from last year that highlighted the difficulty of translating specialized educational services to the virtual world.

But, separate from questions about the quality of service, failing to meet the maintenance of effort requirement could result in districts having to reimburse their state for the difference between last year’s and this year’s special education expenditures—and they won’t be able to use federal relief funds to do so.

Experts on special education funding say many districts aren’t accustomed to parsing the particulars of federal and state laws around special education spending, because in a typical year, special education spending easily exceeds the prior year’s levels.

The U.S. Department of Education this year has heard anecdotal concerns about maintenance of effort from at least one district and several states, according to an agency spokesperson.

Nate Levenson, a consultant who works with school districts on issues around funding for special education, said many school districts currently concerned about failing to meet maintenance of effort will ultimately come out unscathed—particularly if they take advantage of the federal law’s existing exceptions and work proactively with state agencies to resolve concerns.

Still, “I definitely don’t want to say 100 percent of districts are off the hook,” Levenson said. “An awful lot of districts need to do this research, and get up to speed on the intricacies of maintenance of effort.”

Here’s what districts should know as they face yet another example of the pandemic’s confounding effect on school finance.

What is maintenance of effort?

The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act governs how K-12 schools provide services to students with disabilities. “Maintenance of effort” is a provision in the law that requires districts to continue funding their special education programs at the same level or higher than during the previous school year. The provision was designed to prevent schools’ existing special education programs from falling victim to budget cuts.

How do I know if my district fulfilled the requirements?

Districts that spent more local and state funds on special education this school year than last year, either overall or per student, have met the requirement.

It seems like my district didn’t fulfill those requirements. Are there any scenarios that would count as exceptions?

Yes. In fact, out of 13 districts in Washington state that recently reported concerns about meeting maintenance of effort this year, only two are actually at risk of failing to meet the requirements, said Glenna Gallo, the state’s assistant superintendent of special education.

Situations that could exempt a district from meeting maintenance of effort include:

  • The departure of veteran special education staff members,
  • A drop in enrollment of students with disabilities,
  • The loss of a significant expenditure for a long-term purchase—like a district buying a special education bus one year and using it for several years afterward, and
  • An increase year over year in federal IDEA funding for students with disabilities. (In that situation, a district could apply some of its local special education expenses to the federal grant without being penalized for spending fewer local dollars than before.)

Resource guides from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction and the nonprofit WestEd offer additional insights and answer frequently asked questions.

Districts may also be able to get creative with budgeting to avoid a maintenance of effort shortfall, according to Levenson. He’s advising districts to include expenses like personal protective equipment and plexiglass dividers that went to special education students and educators.

“A lot of districts may not even be classifying all of their pandemic-related expenses as allocating some of those to special needs,” he said.

My district didn’t spend the full amount of its annual federal IDEA grant for special education this year. Does that mean we didn’t meet the maintenance of effort requirement?

No. Maintenance of effort accounts for state and local dollars spent, not just federal dollars.

Levenson has heard some districts conflating concerns about underspending their federal grant with concerns about failing to meet maintenance of effort. Districts that underspent their IDEA grant should be able to rewrite their 2019-20 budget to include other special education expenses from the year as part of what the IDEA grant covered, he said.

What happens to districts that still don’t meet maintenance of effort after looking through all the exceptions?

The Parkrose district in Oregon spent $6.3 million on special education this year—25 percent of the district’s operating budget for 16 percent of its students. School buildings were closed for the vast majority of the year, which meant the district didn’t pay for transportation for students with disabilities. Those students also didn’t attend in-person programs from outside providers this year, because those programs weren’t operating.

Sharie Lewis, the district’s director of business services and operations, said she’s been working with her staff to figure out whether the district qualifies for maintenance of effort exceptions; whether she can use local dollars to cover expenses she had previously allocated to the federal grant; and if her district can classify any additional expenses as being relevant to special education.

She worried she might have to take out a short-term loan to pay the state back over time, which could lead to a drop in the district’s credit rating and make it harder for the district to raise local dollars in the future.

“I have a declining enrollment,” Lewis said. “I don’t have that money. Every bit of money I have goes back into paying payroll.”

Her evaluation so far suggests she just might avoid having to take out a loan—but other districts might not be so lucky, she said.

The nearby David Douglas district in Oregon, meanwhile, might have to lay off 15 teachers next year if it fails to meet maintenance of effort requirements and has to pay back millions of dollars it could otherwise devote to classroom priorities, said Patt Komar, the district’s director of administrative services.

“I don’t know that I see much light at the end of the tunnel for us,” Komar said.

Will the U.S. Department of Education lift the burden from schools to maintain spending on special education during the pandemic?

Education groups last May asked the U.S. Department of Education to waive maintenance effort of requirements for special education services. But the law as written prohibits the agency from waiving those requirements for school districts, a spokesperson for the agency told Education Week.

Some districts are also wondering how the influx of federal dollars will affect their ability to meet maintenance of effort requirements going forward. If the district spends short-term dollars on new special education programs, it may not be able to keep those programs once the federal stimulus funds run out.

Special education funding advocates have long pushed for the federal government to rework many aspects of IDEA. Some now say the pandemic has highlighted the need for maintenance of effort to hold schools accountable for providing equivalent services to students with disabilities, rather than simply requiring that they spend the same amount of money as before.

“When we moved into the world of technology, that cut down on some paper and tangible materials,” said Phyllis Wolfram, executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education. “There’s a lot of ways to reduce costs in education that maintenance of effort right now doesn’t even account for.”

EdWeek Research Center contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2021 edition of Education Week as Changes in Special Ed. Services This Year Could Lead to Budget Cuts


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