A small change tucked inside a government spending bill this month may have big implications for special education.

Lawmakers included language clarifying the penalties that states may face if they fail to adequately fund education programs for students with disabilities. The issue has become significant in recent years as states struggled financially in the recession and some sought to cut education spending.

Under federal law, special education funding must be maintained or increased from one year to the next. If states fail to meet what’s known as “maintenance of effort” without obtaining a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, they can lose out on future federal dollars.

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At least two states — South Carolina and Kansas — got into trouble in recent years for slashing their special education budgets without federal approval. As a result, they faced permanent reductions in their allocations from the Department of Education.

Now, Congress has clarified that any penalties assessed for failing to meet maintenance of effort should only apply for the year or years that the requirement is not met. Moreover, any funds that are taken away from states for being out of compliance will not automatically return to the federal coffers, but instead can be redistributed to other states that follow the rules as bonus special education dollars.

“Without this language, these funds for special education and related services would lapse and be unavailable for the children with disabilities they are intended to serve,” said Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the Department of Education, in a statement.

The change, which was proposed by the Obama administration, had broad support on Capitol Hill, congressional staffers say.

The move is also winning props from state leaders. Mick Zais, South Carolina’s superintendent of education, had been among the most vocal in pressing for a policy change after his state faced over $36 million in what he called an “absurd perpetual penalty.”

“This is a victory for students with disabilities in South Carolina and across the nation,” Zais said of the congressional action.