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South Carolina State Chief Talks Federal Funding

For months I've been writing about the back-and-forth between the U.S. Department of Education and South Carolina over special-education spending.

At last week's Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., South Carolina Superintendent Mick Zais chatted with me about the lingering issue. A quick refresher: South Carolina is poised to lose $36 million in federal special education money this year, and every year from now on, because it didn't give the federal government notice it was going to cut the same amount out of its 2009-10 budget. Federal law says that special education spending must stay level or increase from year to year so that services for students with disabilities are insulated from fluctuations in the budget.

There are a few exceptions for which states can cut their spending, including during times of financial crises and following major natural disasters, but they still have to get the OK from the Education Department before doing so.

South Carolina didn't get approval to cut funding for that year, although subsequent year cuts were considered justified by the Education Department.

Zais, who wasn't elected until 2010, said he accepts the fact that South Carolina didn't do what it should have in 2009-10: notify the feds about the budget cut. But he finds the penalty for that—losing the same amount of federal special education dollars each year going forward, forever, is nonsensical. "How does that solve anything?" he said.

Zais' predecessor was Democrat Jim Rex, who left the state chief job to take a stab at running for governor.

At the moment, whether the penalty will be imposed on Oct. 1 is in limbo. The last action on the issue was South Carolina's request to stall it. The department had already delayed the penalty for 1 year—it was to have taken effect in 2011.

"To his credit, I think Secretary [Arne] Duncan is sympathetic," Zais said, although "he has not said so directly."

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