Since the first day of class for most schools in Michigan last week, Marcie Lipsitt’s phone has been ringing nonstop with parents distraught about cuts to their children’s special education services.
A new round of special education cuts were taking hold, prompted by a 5 percent reduction in federal funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), said Lipsitt, a longtime advocate for children with disabilities and co-chair of the Michigan Alliance for Special Education.
Lipsitt said it means that many schools have eliminated resource rooms where children can go to get help in areas such as math, reading, writing and organizational skills. Many schools will have fewer speech, occupational or physical therapists, along with social workers and school psychologists, which means students who previously received speech therapy twice a week might only receive it once week, for example. And in some general education classrooms that had two teachers — one for the whole class and one specifically to support students with special needs — the special education teacher has been eliminated.
“For Michigan, it hit like a ton of bricks,” Lipsitt said. “Conditions are eroding and children are not being allowed to become taxpayers. They’re not being given access to independence, being productive, being ready for a global workforce.”
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.
The National Education Association estimates that if states and local school systems did not replace any of the funds lost through sequestration, nearly 300,000 students receiving special education services would be affected. The union estimated up to 7,800 jobs could be lost as a result of the federal budget cuts.
All told, 6.5 million children with disabilities ages 3-21 received services funded by the IDEA in the fall of 2011, the most recent number available.
Tricky Funding Formulas
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.
Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of public policy and advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said that as a result, “Over the course of the recession, the cuts in a school district’s budget have disproportionately been on general education students,” although students with disabilities are often affected along with everybody else by reductions in services to general education students, such as larger class size.
But in a survey by AASA earlier this year on the impact of the recession on schools, more superintendents indicated that special education spending would decline for the first time in the nearly five years the survey has been conducted. Ellerson said that in previous years, school systems were able to cover the cuts in federal funding, but superintendents indicated this year they can no longer do so because of continuing recessionary pressures and the depth of the sequestration cuts.
Those cuts further exacerbate the federal government’s chronic underfunding of its contribution toward the education of students with disabilities. Under the IDEA, the federal government committed to giving states funding for up to 40 percent of the difference between the cost of educating a student with a disability and a general student. The most the federal government has ever given the states is 18.5 percent in 2005 (aside from a one-time infusion of economic stimulus funding in fiscal year 2009), and the figure has been declining since, according to Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of education organizations. Under the sequester, the federal share fell to 14.9 percent, the lowest federal contribution by percent dating to 2001.
Federal funding aside, local school systems are obligated by law to provide children with disabilities with a free appropriate education.
“It doesn’t matter what the feds send down to the locals and the states in federal support, the law requires that states and local school districts identify and serve every student that they deem to be eligible and in need of special education,” said Candace Cortiella, director of The Advocacy Institute. The institute is a nonprofit that provides training for special education advocates and runs the web site IDEA Money Watch, which tracks federal funding for special education.
“There can be no consideration given to how much money there is to spend. That really puts the states and the local districts in quite a precarious situation,” Cortiella said.
What States Are Doing
The impact of the sequester on special education varies from state to state and even district to district.
In Virginia, most school districts have been able to weather the special education funding cuts so far by not replacing teachers who leave, according to John Eisenberg, assistant superintendent for special education and student services. Many school systems have also reduced or eliminated staff development, which is critical in special education.
“There’s constant change in the field in terms of making sure folks are up to speed and are using research-based practices for students,” Eisenberg said. “As we have learned more and more about things like autism, the field has changed. Getting teachers trained in the most recent research-based practices is critical.”
Virginia schools have also reported big cuts in budgets for materials and technologies to support students with disabilities, which can include electronic devices to help nonverbal students communicate, technology to help students who are hearing-impaired and computers to enlarge text, for example.
In Florida, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties found the money to keep their special education programming intact. But nearby Broward County this year eliminated five of 11 behavior specialists, 10 program specialists and an assistive technology position, according to Mark Halpert, director of the Florida Advocacy Coalition for Learning Disabilities.
Halpert worries about the damage a second year of sequestration could inflict.
“These kids are smart — they learn differently, have challenges and can be enormously successful,” Halpert said. “We owe it as a society to help them succeed.”
Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.