Corrected: An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate information about April guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on whether school districts can reduce their “maintenance of effort” in spending.
The complex rules that govern how federal dollars must be spent on special education services are getting a new, critical look as stimulus money starts flowing to the states.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act says that when federal funding increases, school districts can shift a portion of their local special education money to other educational purposes. With more than $12 billion in IDEA aid coming from the federal government under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act over two years, districts were expecting a lot of relief.
But the U.S. Department of Education has told the states some districts don’t have that flexibility after all. In the terminology used in the federal law, those districts are not providing a “free, appropriate public education.”
How many districts might be affected by that “guidance modification”, released April 13 by the Education Department, is unknown. The department ranks each state’s special education performance based on a series of indicators, and states, in turn, rank their districts based on the same indicators.
States are required to make determinations annually about the special education performance of each of their school districts. If a state determines that a district is not meeting targets in the state’s performance plan, the state must prohibit that district from reducing its “maintenance of effort” in spending, acording to the Education Department.
Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va., said the federal guidance is too restrictive.
“If every district has to spend 100 percent of its federal dollars, it makes it difficult to spend this money,” she said. Districts have been warned not to spend money on projects that may have ongoing costs because the stimulus dollars will dry up in two years.
“You can’t tell us that this was [Congress’] intent,” said Ms. Kusler, who along with other education lobbyists argued against the guidance in a meeting with federal officials. “These districts want to reclaim their local dollars. They should be allowed to do so.”
Candace Cortiella, a parent advocate with the Advocacy Institute in Marshall, Va., has created a Web site, ideamoneywatch.com, to gather information about district rankings and to make sure that districts are using their IDEA money under the stimulus as the federal government has required.
Though states are required to post indicator data from districts, they are not required to post whether a district “meets requirements,” “needs assistance,” “needs intervention,” or, in the lowest rating, “needs substantial intervention.”
“I’m certainly in favor of there being some degree of accountability before you can just take away the money,” Ms. Cortiella said.
Federal special education law also requires that school districts spend a certain percentage of federal money to provide services for students at private schools located within district boundaries.
But with so much new money coming on top of this fiscal year’s $11.1 billion for special education, it doesn’t make sense to divert the same percentage to private schools when the private schools’ needs haven’t changed, argued Kevin D. Magin, the associate superintendent for special programs for the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency, which provides services and support to 34 school districts in Wayne County, Mich.
Relatively few private school students receive special education services, and most of them need speech therapy, a relatively inexpensive program, Mr. Magin said.
The state can’t use the extra money to buy textbooks or hire teachers for private schools, he said. And increasing the number of children served means that the state would continue to be responsible for them after the stimulus money ended.
“This is way more money than is really necessary,” Mr. Magin said of the private school share.
Georgene Wojciechowski, the associate superintendent for the 36,200-student Archdiocese of Detroit schools, deals with 56 local districts that have a Roman Catholic school within their borders. The stimulus money will help those districts “enhance what services are received,” she said, “and will help find more students faster than what had been happening.”
About 176 students received special education services in archdiocesan schools in 2007-08, she said.
“Those districts that are tighter with their budgets, this will give them more confidence” to provide services, she said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of Education Week as Restrictions on Spec. Ed. Spending Prompt Complaints