U.S. Department of Education officials appear to be making it easier for school districts to limit spending on special education.

Under federal law, districts are required to spend at least as much each year on educating students with disabilities as they did the prior year under a provision known as “maintenance of effort.” If they fail to meet this requirement without obtaining federal approval, then districts risk losing out on future funding from Washington.

Traditionally, it was understood that if school districts lowered their spending for a given year, they would be expected to return to the higher spending level in order to meet their maintenance of effort requirement for the following year. But that no longer seems to be the case.

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In a letter sent in June, Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs at the Education Department, indicated that school districts are only obligated to meet their spending level for the previous year, regardless of whether or not they satisfied the maintenance of effort requirement at that time.

“Each year’s (school district) maintenance of effort obligation is based on the actual amount expended in the immediate prior fiscal year,” Musgrove wrote in the letter to the head of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, which was first reported by Education Week.

The shift could make a big difference. In recent years seven states requested federal approval to lower special education spending as the recession took its toll. Five of the states were granted waivers, while others made cuts without receiving permission.

Given Musgrove’s guidance, these states likely will not be required to return to previous funding levels in the future.