Kudos to ED for Gutsy Call on Special Ed

I’ve long griped that the Obama administration has talked too often about more school spending and not enough about smarter school spending, and I was particularly disenchanted to hear the President go back to talking this week about pumping more borrowed federal funds into school facilities and salaries. So I’m pleased to laud the administration for its recent, smart, and gutsy decision regarding special education spending. Especially given that its decision was sure to annoy the intimidating, self-righteous special education lobby, ED showed admirable courage and common sense.

Here’s the deal. Education Week‘s Nirvi Shah yesterday reported that, “Districts that want to reduce special education spending from one year to the next without restoring what was cut now have the blessing of the U.S. Department of Education.” In June, Melody Musgrove, ED’s director of the office of special education programs, sent a letter to the National Association of State Directors of Special Education declaring that a school district “is not obligated to expend at least the amount expended in the last fiscal year for which it met the maintenance-of-effort requirement.” This is a healthy and important development. (And kudos to Shah for the coverage–I, for one, had totally missed this).

You see, federal law has long been taken to mean that special ed spending cannot be adjusted downward except in tightly constrained circumstances (such as when an especially costly student leaves a district). Shah noted that, “Cutting the special education budget for other reasons meant a district was running the risk of losing its share of federal funds.”

Yep, you read that right. A district which provides special education services more cost-effectively has long been threatened with losing their federal aid unless they keep on spending at the same rate. In other words, special ed policy has made it essentially illegal to improve special ed productivity. This is problematic on principle, but especially at a time when districts are being asked to make tough choices about services for all other students. Of course, the special education advocates are never called out on the troubling implications of the push to protect children with special needs no matter the cost–and folks of all stripes are terrified to ever label such sympathetic efforts as “selfish.” But systematically privileging kids in special ed necessarily requires giving short shrift to all other students.

If districts reduce their special education spending, ED says it’s now permissible to at least consider leaving it at the new level. This makes good sense. Shah quotes AASA legislative specialist Sasha Pudelski offering probably the most sensible take on the issue. Pudelski said, “School administrators have been forced to cut to the bone when it comes to general education costs, but current IDEA [maintenance-of-effort] requirements prohibit them from making the same difficult cuts to special education. Our members think this is inherently unfair…Fairness dictates that all programs and populations share in the burden of cuts, rather than holding a single program exempt.”

Predictably, the special education lobby has denounced the shift. Kathleen Boundy, co-director of the Center for Law and Education, has sent ED a letter demanding that the guidance be rescinded and arguing that districts should be required to “to maintain the level of special education expenditures from year to year based on a notion that costs rarely decrease.”

Monday, ED officials sensibly responded to such complaints by noting that IDEA’s strictures will keep districts from misbehaving. Good for ED. This was a smart, sensible call–even if it’s likely to generate more than a little undeserved grief.

– Frederick Hess

(This post also appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

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