Corrected: A previous version of this article incorrectly described which level of government must spend 15 percent of its federal special education money.
Bit by bit, the U.S. Department of Education is trying to pull down the walls that have traditionally separated general and special education.
One facet of the plan is the department’s support of “response to intervention,” or RTI, an educational technique that bolsters the skills of academically struggling students before they fall so far behind that they need special education services.
And another facet is “coordinated, comprehensive early-intervening services,” a method of paying for RTI-related programs using federal special education dollars.
At a conference last month, state special education directors and federal officials focused on learning more about early-intervening services. The potential to help children early in their school careers is great, supporters say.
“We are hearing some really positive things about increased communications and collaborative service-delivery models,” said Ruth E. Ryder, the director of the division of monitoring and state improvement planning in the Education Department’s office of special education programs. “People are really anxious to get ideas about how they can work together collaboratively, and make things better for kids.”
But the rules and restrictions surrounding early-intervening services are so complex that at least some state officials are wary. Shifting scarce special education dollars to general education initiatives could provide a new opportunity—or create a paperwork burden they’re reluctant to take on.
“It’s going to take some time to work out the kinks,” said Carol B. Massanari, the co-director of the Mountain Plains Regional Resource Center, a federally funded agency that provides special education technical assistance to 10 states and the federal Bureau of Indian Education.
“People want to know how to do this right,” she said. “They want to be able to use this leverage, but to use it in a way that’s going to result in improvements.”
When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized in 2004, the law allowed districts to take up to 15 percent of the money they receive from the federal government for special education and use it for what was deemed “coordinated, comprehensive early-intervening services.”
Early-intervening services can be directed at students of all ages, though the particular focus is on pupils from kindergarten to grade 3. The services are not intended for students in special education, but for those who need extra support for academic or behavioral success.
Though districts have the option of using special education money for such programs, they must make up the decrease in the special education budget through another source. Districts must also track for two years the academic progress of students who receive early-intervening services.
The Education Department promotes this option as a win-win proposition: General education can benefit by programs aimed at reducing academic and behavioral problems. Special education providers can concentrate on children who really need intensive additional supports because of a disability, not just those who may not have been given a strong education in their early school years.
In some cases, however, districts are required to use the full 15 percent for early-intervening services, introducing an additional layer of complexity.
The requirement to use 15 percent of a district’s special education aid is triggered if the district has too many minority students in special education, or in a specific disability category, too many in restrictive settings, or too many who have undergone severe disciplinary measures like suspension or expulsion. States create their own formulas to determine what the Education Department calls “significant disproportionality.”
If a state identifies disproportionality in a particular racial or ethnic group within a district, the 15 percent must be spent “particularly, but not exclusively,” on children in that group. An example, as provided by the department: If a school district was identifying too many African-American children as being in need of special education, the district would not be able to limit early-intervening services solely to African-Americans.
Kristen Reedy, the director of the Northeast Regional Resource Center, a federal technical-assistance center that works with eight states, said the success of the program will be based largely on creative solutions by states.
“A lot of the issues out there surround the use of the funds. How can we use our federal funds in flexible ways so that we can maximize our resources?” she said.
The Education Department released technical guidance to the states in late July, Ms. Ryder said, as part of an ongoing process as states asked for more clarity on how to use the funding, particularly for RTI initiatives.
Creating that technical guidance offered an example to states, Ms. Ryder said. Because the program has the potential to affect students covered under different funding streams, federal officials who work with special education, the Title I program for disadvantaged students, and the Title III program for students learning English all worked together on the document.
“We do want to be modeling what we expect states and districts to be doing,” Ms. Ryder said. “We are hearing, when we talk to people, that sometimes the Title I director and the special education director [in a district] aren’t always communicating about how they can deliver better services.”
But the rules and guidelines make a complicated federal program “almost unintelligible,” said Daniel J. Losen, a senior education law and policy associate with the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Mr. Losen, who has studied issues of minority overidentification in special education and discipline, said the department is sending mixed messages. On the one hand, he said, it is asking states to look specifically for racial overidentification in some areas. But states can’t target their programs directly to the affected group, he said.
The prohibition on spending the early intervention dollars on students receiving special education services is also counterproductive, Mr. Losen believes.
“It’s almost like all the educators turned into lawyers and are trying to not think about race,” Mr. Losen said.
During the recent conference, New Jersey educators talked about their efforts. Roberta Wohle, the director of the state’s office of special education programs, is working closely with the 19 districts that have been identified this school year as having a significant disproportionality.
In New Jersey, the money is being spent on hiring extra personnel, such as behavioral specialists, she said. Ms. Wohle said districts have to use the money strategically, both to make sure it is being spent on programs that work, and that it is being spent correctly.
“Districts have to think very hard about the population that they want to serve with the money,” she said. “Your use of the money has to be very well thought out.”
Asked if the program promotes collaboration, Ms. Wohle said it was a good start. General and special educators in New Jersey were working closely before the program began, she said. But using special education aid for general education students was, not too long ago, impermissible.
“For years people have said, if we could have some of that special education money directed our way, we could reduce the number of students in special education,” Ms. Wohle said. “Now we’ll have the opportunity to see if it’s true.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Spec. Ed. Is Funding Early Help