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D.C. to Lose Some Special Education Funding

The District of Columbia has become the first jurisdiction to have a portion of its federal special education funding withheld because it is not meeting the "State Performance Plan" process created in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

According to a June 1 letter from the U.S. Department of Education, 20 percent of its federal fiscal year 2009 funding will be withdrawn. That's equivalent to about $3,396,000, based on the budget tables found here that say the city was going to receive a little less than $17 million in federal special education funds this year.

Ruth Ryder, the Director of the Division of Monitoring and State Improvement Planning in Education Department's Office of Special Education Programs, corrects me on this point. In an email, she said, "It is not 20 percent of its Federal fiscal year 2009 funds that are being withheld but rather, as stated in the letter to D.C., "20 percent of D.C.'s FFY 2009 funds reserved for State-level activities under section 611(e) of the IDEA..." This amounts to about $480,000." D.C. is losing part of the funds it would use for administrative activities, not money that goes directly to providing services to students.

(The blog IDEA Moneywatch is following this issue, and notes that despite D.C.'s penalty, it's still slated to receive more than $16 million in stimulus funds.)

The act requires that states monitor certain educational outcomes in their districts for students with disabilities, and submit "annual performance reports" to the federal government. There are 20 different "indicator areas" (pdf) that states must calculate for students covered under Part B of the law, which applies to young people ages 3 through 21. An additional 14 indicators (pdf) must be submitted for infants and toddlers with disabilities, who are funded under part C of the law.

After the states and jurisdictions submit their information, they get a "grade" from the department: meets requirements, needs assistance, needs intervention, or needs substantial intervention. The information is always a little bit behind real time, so the ratings that states are receiving now are based on data from the 2007-08 school year. The rating letters for all the states can be found here.

States and jurisdictions that receive three "needs intervention" ratings in a row face certain penalties, up to the loss of 20 to 50 percent of their federal funding that is "reserved for State-level activities."

The full letter for D.C. is here, and it details some rather extensive problems, generally related to the 45,000-student district's inability to provide valid and reliable data for several indicator areas.

From the letter:

Given the nature of the noncompliance noted in this letter and that D.C. has had Special Conditions placed on its grant award under Part B of the IDEA since 2001, the Department has concluded that D.C. would be unable to correct its problems in one year. D.C. previously entered into a compliance agreement with the Department under the IDEA from 1998-2001, and it did not result in compliance. We therefore feel compelled to take a more serious enforcement action based on the magnitude of the noncompliance with the requirements of Part B of the IDEA and the length of that noncompliance.

The District of Columbia does have the option of appealing this decision. But, given the dysfunction within city's special education system, it might be difficult for it to convince the department that it can come into substantial compliance any time soon. It has made progress in some areas, but long-standing problems remain in the system's ability to evaluate students in a timely fashion and provide services after evaluation.

D.C. is not the only jurisdiction to get a "needs intervention" rating three years in a row. Colorado and Indiana did as well. However, both those states are being asked to submit corrective action plans within 60 days because the department believes their problems can be addressed in a year.

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