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Ed. Department Seeks Comments on Special Education Funding Rules

Interested parties have until December 2 to offer thoughts on a set of rules proposed by the Education Department that guide how much states and districts must spend on special education--and the department is specifically looking for ideas about how to make this complex set of rules easier to understand and less prone to misinterpretation.

To grasp the proposed rules requires understanding some background.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act generally requires states and school districts to devote the same amount of money, or more, to special education from year to year. A few exceptions allowing districts to curtail their special education funding are spelled out in the law; for example, if a student who required high-priced services leaves the district, if a highly-paid staff member leaves, or if special education enrollment drops in the district as a whole. The requirement to keep funding stable is referred to as "maintenance of effort."

In 2011, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Bill East, wrote a letter to the Education Department, asking what would happen to a school district if it reduced its special education spending for some reason not permitted under the IDEA. For the next budget year, would it be required to make up the difference? Or could it use that new, lower number as a new base amount? 

The department responded that the new, lower number would be the new base amount. The department's explanation was that the law only requires districts to spend the same as it did the previous year, NOT the last year in which it met maintenance of effort requirements.

That rationale seemed nonsensical to Kathleen Boundy, co-director of the Center for Law and Education, with offices in Boston and the District of Columbia. She wrote her own letter to the department, arguing that when a district unlawfully reduces special education spending, it shouldn't benefit from that decision by never having to make up the difference. 

The department agreed, and in 2012 withdrew the guidance letter to East

Which brings us back to the proposed rules; they effectively restate what the department said in its response to Boundy. The notice also says that states and districts still have a "significant lack of understanding" over this issue and tries to offer additional clarification on how much districts can spend, as well as how states can properly monitor district compliance. Now it's up to states and districts to let the department know whether it managed to make this funding issue more straightforward.

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