Federal law requires school districts to spend at least as much each year on special education as they did the last, but in light of the pandemic, school leaders want Congress to ease up on this mandate.

Officials with a half-dozen education groups say that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requirement known as “maintenance of effort” is unreasonable in the current climate. Under the law, there can be financial consequences if school districts do not keep pace on special education spending.

In a letter to leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives this week, the school groups said that COVID-19 has required districts to unexpectedly allocate extra dollars toward remote learning, computers for students and staff training, among other needs. Personnel who typically assist students with disabilities on buses have instead been tasked with food preparation and delivery while those who provide special education assistance in the classroom have been bringing instructional packets to students’ homes.

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“Unfortunately, the maintenance of effort requirements in IDEA do not have a pandemic exception,” reads the letter signed by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, as well as the Association of School Business Officials International, the Council of Administrators of Special Education, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National School Boards Association. “Specifically, the IDEA local maintenance of effort requirements do not allow districts to adjust their special education funding that they had previously, and in good-faith, dedicated to special education efforts.”

The groups are asking Congress to grant flexibility so that districts don’t have to return money spent during this school year. They note that states are already able to receive waivers for their IDEA funding requirement from the Department of Education if they are in financial distress and argue that similar accommodations should be made for local school districts.

The request comes after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declined last month to seek the ability to waive core tenets of IDEA as a result of the coronavirus. Rather, DeVos said in a report to Congress that only “additional flexibilities on administrative requirements” were warranted.

Disability advocates have forcefully pushed back against efforts to introduce any IDEA waivers in response to the pandemic, arguing that such measures are unnecessary. And, they said that tinkering with maintenance of effort would open up long-term issues since less funding could mean that districts reduce the number of positions for special educators and other professionals who serve students with disabilities.

“We are discussing how you can allow flexibility in funding for this school year to be forwarded into the next fiscal year — that seems reasonable — but reducing the level of effort in the coming and subsequent years is problematic,” said Denise Stile Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, or COPAA, a nonprofit that represents special education attorneys.

“We understand this is a challenging time but we want to discuss solutions that infuse funding into special education so that trained professionals are available in schools and districts that can provide students with the services and supports outlined in their IEPs and to make up for lost progress during the crisis,” she said. “Reducing district (maintenance of effort) will not help us accomplish this for students.”

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