For the second year in a row, the federal government is bracing for more states to request a pass on requirements that they hold special education spending harmless as they struggle to balance their budgets, leaving school districts to find ways to meet all students’ needs with less money.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is designed to cocoon spending on students with disabilities: Regardless of the status of state budgets, special education spending must remain unaffected. States have to spend the same amount or more from year to year, a requirement known as the maintenance of effort.
If they don’t request permission before scaling back special education funding, they risk losing federal money for students with disabilities. About 18 percent of money spent on those students nationwide comes from the federal government. If states get a pass from the U.S. Department of Education for a single year, their spending levels must revert to what they were before they were given waivers.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education waived the spending requirement for Iowa, Kansas, and West Virginia because of those states’ financial straits.
Waivers for Alabama, New Jersey, and South Carolina are pending. Kansas said it will apply for another waiver, as the state legislature appears likely to cut special education spending again, and Oregon is drafting a request for a waiver now.
Until recently, passes have been rare. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana and Mississippi requested waivers using another provision of the law that makes exceptions in the case of natural disasters, said Ruth E. Ryder, the director of the division of monitoring and state improvement planning for the federal office of special education programs.
Although states may have been reluctant to apply for waivers in the past, assuming they would be denied, the current state of the economy has lessened that hesitation.
“I think that the state budgets are a lagging indicator. Even though they tell us we’re out of the recession, the state budgets are clearly still hurting,” said Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director for governmental relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, in Alexandria, Va.
The country’s ongoing financial woes could mean more states requesting waivers. That would leave school districts to uphold the basic provision of the IDEA—a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities—with less money to do so.
“Unfortunately, the students with disabilities aren’t going anywhere. It’s a real precarious balance,” said Luann L. Purcell, the executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education, which represents district-level officials and is based in Warner Robbins, Ga.
Ms. Ryder of the federal Education Department said that after waivers were granted last year, the department watched to see whether services for students with disabilities diminished.
“We went to school districts. We talked to teachers. We looked at records—three years of [individualized education programs]—to see if services had changed over time” for other than educational reasons, Ms. Ryder said.
Of the two reports completed, for West Virginia and Kansas, “we did not find anything.” But money flowing to districts from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the federal economic-stimulus program, may have been the reason. As those funds run out, states may find it more challenging to keep the status quo.
And special education programs run by states were affected overall, even though students’ IEPs were unchanged.
Budgets for the state-run schools for the deaf and blind were decreased in West Virginia, state education department spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said, as were equipment and teacher aides for students with severe disabilities.
The story will be similar in Oregon, where the state sliced about $17.6 million from its $333 million special education budget, education department spokeswoman Susanne Smith said.
“The immediate results of these cuts for the Oregon School for the Deaf would be layoffs of staff, including teachers, resulting in higher class sizes, reduced school days, and significant reduction in the dormitory program with less students served,” she said in an e-mail. The school has about 110 students.
In Kansas, state education officials believe students with disabilities are being served as they have in the past. But that has meant cuts to other programs, said Dale M. Dennis, the deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative services. He added that Kansas will apply for another waiver for fiscal 2011 once the state budget is settled.
“Some of the districts have used other funds to make sure special ed. students were properly served,” Mr. Dennis said.
That’s the case, to an extent, in the 3,800-student Seaman Unified School District in Topeka, said Superintendent Mike Mathes, who is also the president of the state superintendents association. The district cut back a host of services because of an overall drop in the budget.
“You still have to meet the goals of the IEPs,” Mr. Mathes said. Seaman Unified reduced its full-time agricultural teacher to part time, eliminated money to help fund 15 coaches and club sponsors, made a librarian at one elementary school part time, and shrunk the curriculum and instruction budget, as well as the building equipment budget, each by 10 percent.
With the state legislature poised to vote on additional reductions to education spending, there will be more money-saving measures in the works for the coming school year.
“It’s not going to be pretty,” Mr. Mathes said.
Another way districts may be saving a little money on special education services, without compromising IEPs, is by putting more students with disabilities in regular classrooms, Ms. Reder said.
“Serving kids in the general ed. classroom cuts down on the need for having separate classrooms,” she said. “Obviously, inclusion to the maximum extent possible is a goal that we’re striving for.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as States Expected to Seek Waivers on Special Ed. Spending