Special educators say budget cuts are forcing larger class sizes, layoffs and other changes that compromise their ability to serve students with disabilities, according to a first-ever national survey.

In the poll of 701 special education administrators from 45 states, nearly all reported that they are experiencing or expect to see an “increased strain on the availability of services” for students with disabilities, according to the Council for Exceptional Children, a professional organization for special educators, which conducted the survey.

What’s more, over 90 percent of respondents said they anticipate taking on more students with smaller budgets and fewer resources.

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“What we saw in the survey was very consistent with what we’ve heard from the field over the last few years: it is increasingly hard to provide services for students with disabilities,” says Kim Hymes, director of policy and advocacy for CEC. “Schools are struggling to figure out how to provide children with disabilities the best possible portfolio of services and supports with limited funds.”

The job is especially tough when it comes to special education students who are entitled to a free and appropriate education — no matter how costly — under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Hymes said.

Many respondents told CEC that federal economic stimulus funding provided temporary relief for their school districts, but the impact of tight local and state budgets will no doubt be felt as those extra federal dollars run out this year.

“Special education teachers are having to carry the maximum caseload and are not being able to provide the best services so students can continue in the least restrictive environment,” an Arkansas special education supervisor wrote.

Now, advocates are working to stave off budget cuts. In February, Congress considered chopping $557.7 million from special education, but the cut was never approved.

“The overall tone in the responses was very mournful,” Hymes says. “It is very heartbreaking for these educators to watch what’s going on with the state of funding and what it means for the implementation of IDEA.”