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South Carolina Won't Get Hearing on Special Ed. Penalty

It looks like South Carolina will be penalized $36 million in federal money for students with disabilities this October.

The state had wanted the U.S. Department of Education to grant it a hearing in which it could appeal the penalty, or make it a one-time punishment, rather than a permanent one. The penalty was the result of what the federal government said was an unjustifiable cut to the state's special education budget.

The Education Department gave South Carolina a year to find a way to come up with the $36 million it faces losing, permanently, by putting off the penalty until this October. Earlier this year, the state was denied another one-year delay of the loss in federal money. In a letter to state Superintendent Mick Zais late last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan denied the request for a hearing.

"When there is no basis to proceed at all in an administrative action, and the only function remaining is that of announcing that fact, the matter should be dismissed," Duncan's May 22 letter says.

In all, South Carolina faced a $111 million penalty for cuts to special education spending, but the state was able to defend some of the cuts it made from 2008 to 2011. Federal education disability law allows spending cuts at the state level only with federal permission, and only in cases of extreme financial hardship or major natural disasters. Until the recent recession, such spending waivers were almost unheard of. The reasoning: Students with disabilities should have continuity of services from one year to the next, regardless of a state's financial picture.

South Carolina spends about $410 million on its 100,000 students with disabilities. Zais had already asked the state legislature to add $36 million to his agency's budget in case the extension was denied, but he told the Associated Press he's not done fighting with the feds. Now he'll go through the courts and Congress.

"This entire process has been symbolic of Washington-style red tape," Zais said. He called the order a "poor decision which could harm children for years to come. ... It now seems even our students with disabilities are not safe from the overreach of this administration."

In an emailed statement to Education Week, Zais called the Obama administration a bully, citing other instances of the federal government sparring with the Palmetto State. (There was a recent flap over a supposedly "secret" meeting involving Zais and Duncan and South Carolina's request for a federal No Child Left Behind waiver, which it has not received so far.)

"A strong case can be made the Obama Administration is acting like a bully towards South Carolina. ... it seems the Obama Administration has singled out South Carolina as the object of their punitive, intrusive policies," Zais said. "It now seems even our students with disabilities are not safe from the overreach of this administration."

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