Special Education

When is a Stimulus Not Really a Stimulus?

By Christina A. Samuels — February 06, 2009 3 min read
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For the special education world, seen perpetually underfunded, the prospect of an infusion of $13 billion over two years in federal stimulus funds might seem like a pretty great deal.

But the extra funding has become entangled in spending rules that are a part of the complex Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. And now, some of the same advocates who might be supportive of extra funding are against proposed waiver provisions that they think might ultimately result in fewer programs and services for students with disabilities after the stimulus than before.

First, a caution: the stimulus packages are constantly changing objects right now. So many proposals are coming and going that certain issues are becoming obsolete, only to be replaced by new objects of concern.

But it’s worth paying attention to this issue, if only to remember that federal dollars never come without any strings.

To understand, it helps to go back to the original law. Special education is paid for by a combination of school district, state, and federal dollars. In fiscal 2008, about $11 billion federal dollars were distributed to the states to be used for special education-related services.

The IDEA includes provisions to ensure that districts continue “maintenance of effort,” so that funding levels do not drop from year to year. Part of the maintenance of effort provisions also state that state and local agencies must use federal dollars to “supplement, not supplant” their own efforts.

The 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA offered some exceptions to “supplement, not supplant” provisions. If the federal government allocates more money to a district from one year to the next, the district is allowed to take the difference between the two allocations, halve it, and use that figure to reduce their own funding requirements. See here.

So, if a district received $1 million in federal funds for a fiscal year, and $1.5 million the next fiscal year, the district is allowed to reduce its local funding requirements by $250,000.

Candace Cortiella, the director of The Advocacy Institute and friend of the blog, said the provision was created with the assumption that federal funding for special education would go up over the years. Reducing the state and local funding requirement when federal funds go up recognizes that state and local agencies bear the primary funding burden for special education services and could use relief, Candace told me.

The House of Representatives’ version of the stimulus bill makes no changes to any of the funding provisions already in the IDEA. However, the package under debate in the Senate does. In that bill, districts would be allowed to use all of their extra stimulus money to replace, or supplant, local and state funding.

Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director for government affairs for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, told me that her organization’s members have asked for this flexibility. The organization sees temporary waivers as the best way to absorb and spend this new money on what’s really needed. Also, without the waivers, they’re concerned that the money wouldn’t be spent, and that would hurt future efforts to try and get more special education money on a permanent basis.

Opponents of the waiver proposed in the Senate say that the bill is supposed to improve special education, not just maintain what we already have. If the states and districts are no longer required to maintain their funding efforts, then there’ll be no extra money for students with disabilities, just the same amount of money there was before.

Paul Marchand, the director of the Disability Policy Collaboration for The Arc, is an opponent of this provision. The IDEA already gives the U.S. secretary of education a lot of discretion, and the Senate doesn’t have to go any further, he said.

Again, I caution that because the stimulus bills are changing, some of these issues may soon be resolved. But until they are, it may be premature to celebrate all the “extra” special ed dollars that are coming to the states.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.