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Sequester Hits Special Education Like ‘Ton of Bricks’


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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.

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Comments (9 Responses)

  1. Leo Pusateri says:

    Thank you Barack Obama. It was your sequester. You own it.

  2. Lela says:

    My son’s child-specific aide that has been with him for 3 1/2 years was laid off because of this. He has Asperger Syndrome. They had to put another with him because it is a requirement of his IEP, but they took away someone familiar to him in a very pivotal year – this is is first year in high school. AND in a Magnet high school where his performance will be scrutinized. So, rather than keep the aide that had been with him and he knew, they get rid of her and give him another one because he had worked for the district longer. Where in that scenario did they consider the child’s needs? They didn’t – they don’t care about our kids; they say they do, but it all comes down to politics. Our country is on a downard spiral and the future looks grim, indeed.

  3. Jefferson Phillips says:

    I wonder about how we all did things before the federal govt stepped in and began doing things for us? didn’t we all join together in community and have volunteers work together to train teach and develop those who wanted to learn? I do not remember it ever being easy but having been a co-founder of a 20 year ESL outreach totally supported by volunteers, I think we can fix this if we choose to. Of course maybe this old school thinking is too old school for today’s needs. Your thoughts and ideas? How can we all work together to take back the schooling of our children from the politicians who demand all our money for their own often perverse goals?

  4. Shari Callihan says:

    They don’t care! You hardly ever see anything being cut for the gifted kids!!! They can function just fine, but they always get special treatment!! So tired of the system!!!

  5. Ron Scott says:

    There are some real life issues associated with the suggestion of volunteers doing what teachers and sped teachers do. One that comes to mind is that a disproportionate number of special education students come from lower socioeconomic households that are either single parent run or both parents work. The reality of the situation is that the majority of people who have the day in day out patience that it takes to work with students that have disabilities are the parents of those same children. That creates a paradox: those that will work with the students have to be working some place else just to make ends meet. A solution lies in lowering our societal “need” for to have all of the best gadgets, all the new things…I “need” more, more, more. Until the “need” for more material things stops, we will need to pay highly “special” ized people who have Masters Degrees and other advanced degrees in their craft and care enough to deal with the day in day out grind of unions, burned out teachers, disrespectful students, absent parents, government that will not fully fund programs that would keep kids out of jail (check out the research or I would gladly share it with you if you email me:, and standardized testing to name a few. All this while working for substantially less salary than others with equally important but less socially valued degrees. I could go on and on about how and why someone who plays video games for a living can make more than a teacher with an advanced degree. Video games: the bane of society versus teachers who inspire and take care of the kids no one else will. Violent video games versus those that are trying to teach kids a way stay out of jail where they take up 5 times the resources that a well educated child does (again please email me if you would like the research). A message to the government: Please wake up before you drive this country into the ground.

  6. E. Lemke says:

    Reduce spending on this end; increase it when the students who need it today to become independent adults end up Needing federal money to survive because they were denied the chance to learn when young. What’s wrong with That picture?

  7. Laura Ramos says:

    Even if school districts cut services, students and their families could take them to court to reinstate needed programs, especially if the services have been required on their IEPs. The schools can not just discontinue the services due to the federal budget cuts. They also must have a certain number of special education teachers,etc. to provide the needed services to the kids with special needs, same with Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Psychologists, etc.

    I would suggest the ACLU or some other advocacy or legal program take on the schools and/or the federal government with a law suit. Despite the draconian cuts, the legal obligations remain to provide an equal and appropriate education to the kids with special needs.

  8. Whitney says:

    I do not believe that Barack Obama is the only one at fault but both parties of Congress are at fault. If want an honest opinion and keeping politics out of it somewhat. Sequestration was used by the politicians of both parties as a pawn never mind who gets hurt along the way. If I am going point fingers it will be at the Tea Party people they are more interested obstructing government hold a political party hostage than helping real people. To me they are not even true Republicans.

    Yeah kids get hurt in process but they don’t care because it is not their kids. I mean first thing they reinstated was the FAA for airports because it did effect them leaving DC to go home to their districts. Volunteering is wonderful if it not for a critical service like Educating children. IN the simple sense your asking people who are professionals to give their meager salaries to teach children. Where in some states those meager salaries are not enough to put bread on the table. How do you know the Volunteers are not criminals that would hurt kids. For this are Volunteers are bad idea. How you suggest high paying jobs give up their salaries and to get same amount pay as a teacher. Lastly no one is independently wealthy to volunteer to teach children. People do have to eat and pay bills.

  9. Whitney says:

    I am going with Ron the video games and I play them they are too realistic and graphic but that another issue. It not the newest gadget that needed but the evaluations how the technologies are affecting society are. I have a lousy cell phone with poor battery do I need the latest in cell phone tech no but I do need it work in case of emergency. I do artwork and some of done computer as digital pieces. I prefer to draw them out by hand then use a gadget for inking and coloration. Yes this where I need a gadget (that works) does it needed to be lastest Wii or Playstation no….I do not need that.

    The problem with Technology and this observation is that people are trained to use it. It can be useful in teaching but it is just a tool. We are not training people to think critically or learn from books but from power point presentation. We are teaching to a test not the reason behinds how solve problems or becoming educated or even literate to a point. Technology is not suppose to teach but it is a tool to make things easier. It can be used for good as well as harm.

    Fact is we underpay teachers when entertainers makes millions because have great bodies and a voice says that image matters more than substance. When athletes makes more than teacher and sends wrong message does more harm to the children. Then there is something wrong.

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