After appearing to give school districts the green light last summer to decrease spending on special education, the U.S. Department of Education is making an about-face.

Under federal law, schools are required to maintain or increase their funding for special education from one year to the next. If they do not meet the standard known as “maintenance of effort” without obtaining an exemption from the Department of Education, districts can lose out on future federal funding.

But when the Education Department weighed in last June about the spending standards districts must meet in the years after they fail to abide by the maintenance of effort requirement, government officials got an earful from special education advocates.

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The reason: Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs at the Education Department, signaled at the time that the department would only require schools to spend as much as they did the prior year — whether or not they had followed the rules.

Now, however, Musgrove appears to be backing down. In response to a critical letter from the Center for Law and Education, Musgrove and a colleague wrote this week that they are rescinding their previous guidance.

“After further review, we have determined that the level of effort that (a school district) must meet in the year after it fails to maintain effort is the level of effort that it should have met in the prior year,” wrote Musgrove and Alexa Posny, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

The move has advocates breathing a sigh of relief, with the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates writing that they are “very pleased” and a joint statement from The Advocacy Institute and the Center for Law and Education indicating that they are “overjoyed.”

Despite the change of heart, however, the issue may not be fully decided. The Education Department said they plan to seek public comment on the matter.