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Judge Rules Against New Mexico in Special Education Funding Case

New Mexico did not have the right to reduce state spending in special education for the 2010-11 school year, according to an administrative hearing office based at the U.S. Department of Education, and the decision could have repercussions for later years as well. 

Richard F. O'Hair, an administrative judge within the department's office of hearings and appeals, said he was unpersuaded by the state's argument that it had the right to reduce special education spending, reported the Santa Fe New Mexican. The judge's decision was May 8. 

New Mexico's next step is to see if Education Secretary Arne Duncan overrules the judge, or the state could file an appeal in federal court, according to the news article. 

This funding issue started back when several states, including New Mexico, were struggling with plummeting state revenues. Normally, the Department of Education does not allow states to reduce their financial support for special education programs, in an effort to maintain stable funding for the program. But during the recession, several states asked for, and received, permission to make temporary cuts because state revenues were falling off. Those that made cuts without a funding waiver risked penalties from the Education Department. 

New Mexico reduced spending in special education for the 2009-10 school year by about $15 million, which the Education Department allowed, but it denied a waiver request for subsequent years, saying that the state's financial health had rebounded. (The Education Department's letter to New Mexico, dated June 2013, lays out the department's full rationale.) 

The department could penalize the state by taking back some of the federal money designated for students with disabilities. Other states have run afoul of this maintenance of financial support provision, including South Carolina, which sued the Education Department over its decision to withhold $36 million in federal funds back in 2012. In response, lawmakers decided that any such penalties would only apply for the years that the state was deemed out of compliance with its funding levels, as opposed to a permanent cut. 

Meanwhile, there's the spending levels for the 2012 and 2013 school years, which haven't yet come up in the in this legal case. But if the ultimate decision is that New Mexico didn't put enough money into special education in 2010, it would not have met the maintenance of financial support standard for those years as well, says the Albuquerque Journal



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