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When is a Stimulus Not Really a Stimulus?


For the special education world, seen perpetually underfunded, the prospect of an infusion of $13 billion over two years in federal stimulus funds might seem like a pretty great deal.

But the extra funding has become entangled in spending rules that are a part of the complex Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. And now, some of the same advocates who might be supportive of extra funding are against proposed waiver provisions that they think might ultimately result in fewer programs and services for students with disabilities after the stimulus than before.

First, a caution: the stimulus packages are constantly changing objects right now. So many proposals are coming and going that certain issues are becoming obsolete, only to be replaced by new objects of concern.

But it's worth paying attention to this issue, if only to remember that federal dollars never come without any strings.

To understand, it helps to go back to the original law. Special education is paid for by a combination of school district, state, and federal dollars. In fiscal 2008, about $11 billion federal dollars were distributed to the states to be used for special education-related services.

The IDEA includes provisions to ensure that districts continue “maintenance of effort,” so that funding levels do not drop from year to year. Part of the maintenance of effort provisions also state that state and local agencies must use federal dollars to “supplement, not supplant” their own efforts.

The 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA offered some exceptions to "supplement, not supplant" provisions. If the federal government allocates more money to a district from one year to the next, the district is allowed to take the difference between the two allocations, halve it, and use that figure to reduce their own funding requirements. See here.

So, if a district received $1 million in federal funds for a fiscal year, and $1.5 million the next fiscal year, the district is allowed to reduce its local funding requirements by $250,000.

Candace Cortiella, the director of The Advocacy Institute and friend of the blog, said the provision was created with the assumption that federal funding for special education would go up over the years. Reducing the state and local funding requirement when federal funds go up recognizes that state and local agencies bear the primary funding burden for special education services and could use relief, Candace told me.

The House of Representatives' version of the stimulus bill makes no changes to any of the funding provisions already in the IDEA. However, the package under debate in the Senate does. In that bill, districts would be allowed to use all of their extra stimulus money to replace, or supplant, local and state funding.

Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director for government affairs for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, told me that her organization’s members have asked for this flexibility. The organization sees temporary waivers as the best way to absorb and spend this new money on what's really needed. Also, without the waivers, they're concerned that the money wouldn't be spent, and that would hurt future efforts to try and get more special education money on a permanent basis.

Opponents of the waiver proposed in the Senate say that the bill is supposed to improve special education, not just maintain what we already have. If the states and districts are no longer required to maintain their funding efforts, then there’ll be no extra money for students with disabilities, just the same amount of money there was before.

Paul Marchand, the director of the Disability Policy Collaboration for The Arc, is an opponent of this provision. The IDEA already gives the U.S. secretary of education a lot of discretion, and the Senate doesn't have to go any further, he said.

Again, I caution that because the stimulus bills are changing, some of these issues may soon be resolved. But until they are, it may be premature to celebrate all the "extra" special ed dollars that are coming to the states.


So, I thought the commissioner of ed would have to give waivers to allow funds to be supplanted. This is such a detailed thing, hard to advocate on from a citizen's perspective, but so critical, as I've already heard our mayor saying she would be able to use SPED stimulus money for non-sped purposes (at a community meeting on the city budget, LITERALLY the same day at which the SPED director said at my son's IEP meeting that he couldn't approve two recommendations of the Team for budget reasons...which I know is illegal, but welcome to SPEDland).

I'm truly relieved that the compromise (I have other choice words for it) preserved IDEA money. But it slashed state funding, and without MOE/supplement, not supplant language, and without money to keep the states from cutting local aid in equal amounts to the stimulus, that money might as well be a snow removal provision as far as my child's life is concerned.

I've rarely felt so directly affected by a senate debate, even when my right to marry or other personal issues were in play. This matters. I hope they don't screw it up.

Hi Mamacate. You're right that this extraordinarily complex. It seems like part of this is a philosophical issue at the bureaucrat level: is the stimulus purely to provide relief? Because in that case, it would seem that you actually WANT to supplant local/state dollars, because the states are struggling just to keep themselves afloat.

If the money is supposed to improve services in some way, then a generous granting of waivers seems like a shell game. There are non-spending related ways to improve services, of course. But providing the same amount of money to the states with no guidance other than to do what they've been doing doesn't seem to be a good way to achieve that goal.

Surfing around this morning, I found a letter that Jack O'Connell, the superintendent of public instruction in California, wrote to members of his congressional delegation. He is arguing in favor of the Senate waiver provisions, so this is good to read for another POV:


And here's the Education Trust, an organization arguing against waiver provisions:


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