Special Education Funding Hit Hard by Sequestration

The impact of federal budget sequestration on education didn't appear to be all that devastating in the months since the across-the-board cuts went into effect, but that might be changing now that more students are returning to class. The effects of less money are being especially felt by special education students who have had services either rolled back or completely eliminated, leaving them and their parents in the lurch.

According to Adrienne Lu of Pew's Stateline blog, in total, services required under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act have had their funding cut by 5%, which meant that schools across the country are doing without non-critical things like resource rooms which provide supplementary assistance with homework, classwork and lifestyle skills.

Marcie Lipsitt, a special education advocate in Michigan, described the impact of the cuts to being hit by a ton of bricks. And Michigan is hardly alone.

Across the country, advocates for children with disabilities are grappling with the impact of sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that kicked in when Congress failed to reach an agreement to reduce the federal budget. Although the cuts took effect March 1, the impact did not reach schools until the start of the current school year because of the way many education programs are funded.

Experts agree there is little hard data on the impact of the budget cuts on special education. The U.S. Department of Education estimates the sequester cut about $579 million in federal funding for IDEA Part B, which supports students age 3-21 with specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, autism or emotional disturbances.

States find themselves in a very difficult situation as they're forced to decide between options to raise additional revenue to cover the shortfall at a time when money is tough to come by. Even if additional money could be found, it's possible that states would be loath to use it. Due a funding formula quirk, raising the special education budget temporarily with plans to roll it back again should the federal spigot reopen could cost states in the long run.

It is unknown how many states or schools districts will replace some or all of that money from other sources, such as new tax revenues or cuts to other programs. But they may hesitate to replace federal funding even if they have the resources. That's because by law, states and school districts that raise their funding for special education and then later reduce it, after adjusting for enrollment and other factors, can see their funding from the federal government cut. That requirement, known as maintenance of effort, means that even if the federal government eventually replaces the money cut through the sequester, school districts will be on the hook to spend more than they did before the automatic federal budget cuts.

Because of the maintenance of effort requirement many school districts have worked hard even through several years of state budget cuts to preserve special education funding to avoid risking their federal special education funding.

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