Special Education

State, Local Officials Press Special Education Concerns

By Christina A. Samuels — September 19, 2007 5 min read
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Groups representing state and local education officials have vowed to use debate over reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act to remind federal legislators of chronic concerns related to special education services—and to bring up some new ones.

Among them are complaints that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act remains perennially underfunded, and that tension remains between the precepts of the IDEA and requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.

Representatives speaking on behalf of state lawmakers, superintendents, special education directors, district administrators, and local school boards outlined their concerns at a Sept. 18 briefing here held at the headquarters of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The briefing also highlighted concerns about requirements that districts collect large amounts of data on students with disabilities and about how proposed cutbacks in Medicaid funding would affect schools.

Pressures on states and districts are coming at the same time education groups are responding to a draft plan from the House Education and Labor Committee for reauthorizing the 5½–year-old NCLB school accountability law.

“In a lot of areas, [the draft plan] is not a half-step in the right direction— it’s a half-step in the direction of acknowledging there are some problems, but not addressing the whole problem,” said David L. Shreve, the senior education committee director for the Denverbased National Conference of State Legislatures.

Medicaid Cutback Looms

Advocates for students with disabilities are still stinging from the announcement late last month that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is planning to cut back some of the money it pays to schools to provide certain services to such students who are eligible for Medicaid. (“U.S. Proposes to Trim School Medicaid Funding,” Sept. 12, 2007.)

Schools are able to request reimbursement from the agency for services such as speech or physical therapy that they provide to students as part of their individualized education programs.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has proposed that it will no longer reimburse schools for the administrative costs of such services or pay for transporting students from home to school. The changes are expected to save $3.6 billion over five years, according to the Medicare and Medicaid agency.

Her group gathered statements from school administrators around the country about how the Medicaid rule change would affect them.

For instance, George Wilson, the superintendent of the 2,200-student Monroe County district in Tompkinsville, Ky., said he uses the reimbursement to pay for the district’s five school nurses. Donald F. Hahn, the superintendent of the 2,100-student Olympia school district in Stanford, Ill., said the district has used the reimbursement money to pay for classroom partitions for easily distracted students, and for a special computer for a visually impaired student.

But the agency has provided little or no guidance to districts on how they should ask for reimbursement, said Mary Kusler, the assistant director for government relations for the Arlington, Va.- based American Association of School Administrators.

Her group gathered statements from school administrators around the country about how the Medicaid rule changes would affect them.

For instance, George Wilson, the superintendent of the 2,200-student Monroe County district in Tompkinsville,Ky., said he uses the reimbursement to pay for the district’s five school nurses. Donald F. Hahn, the superintendent of the 2,100-student Olympia school district in Stanford, Ill., said the district has used the reimbursement money to pay for classroom partitions for easily distracted students, and for a special computer for a student who is visually impaired.

Legislation also is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives that would put a moratorium on any changes to the way the agency reimburses districts for services to Medicaid-eligible children. The legislation is attached to a bill reauthorizing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which serves families that aren’t poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.

The proposed rule changes “shows how a stroke of a pen in Washington has a real impact on states,” Ms. Kusler said.

State special education directors also are hoping that a reauthorized No Child Left Behind law could ease some of the datareporting requirements currently contained in the IDEA.

Many Indicators

Schools are required to collect information in 20 different “indicator” areas for the part of the federal special education law that focuses on 3- to 21-year-olds, also known as Part B of the IDEA. The indicators cover such matters as graduation rates, dropout rates, overrepresentation of minorities in special education, and postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities. (“IDEA Imposes Hefty Data Burden on States,” Jan. 31, 2007.) States also must submit data on 14 indicators related to infants and toddlers with disabilities, who are covered by Part C of the law

Much of the information that must be collected for students with disabilities is almost the same as the data that must be collected for all students, said Nancy Reder, the director of governmental relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, based in Alexandria,Va.

Moreover, the sheer number of indicators makes it “difficult to figure out what’s important to focus on. These indicators go off in so many different directions,” Ms. Reder said.

Funding Concerns

The groups also reaffirmed their concern that the IDEA is, to them, an inadequately funded government mandate.

The IDEA authorizes the federal government to give states special education aid equal to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil public school expenditure multiplied by the number of special education students in that state.

The 2004 reauthorization of IDEA provided for a “glide path” to full funding by 2011, starting with fiscal 2005. However, federal appropriations are still less than half of what is authorized in the special education law.

On another point of concern, the groups believe that the NCLB requirements for testing most students at grade level conflicts with the special education law’s mandate that students with disabilities be given an individualized education.

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2007 edition of Education Week as State Groups Use NCLB Reauthorization to Raise Special Ed. Concerns

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