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Special Education Bill Offers Flexibility on 'Maintenance of Effort'

School districts would have more latitude to cut their special education spending under a bill introduced in Congress today by Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican.

Currently, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allows districts to reduce their special education expenditures only in limited circumstances—for example, if a highly paid special education teacher retires and is replaced with someone who earns a lower salary. Other permitted reasons to reduce funding include a student who requires expensive services leaving the district, or an overall decline in special education enrollment. This so-called "maintenance of effort" provision is intended to keep funding, and thereby services to students, stable. 

Walberg's bill would allow districts to cut back on special education spending if they've found other ways to reduce costs while keeping services intact. If a district negotiates a contract with its teachers that reduces personnel costs, for example, the bill states that the district should be able to adjust special education spending to account for that. 

"Each district is unique, and returning decisionmaking to the local level instead of a one-size-fits-all approach will help every student receive the quality education they deserve," Walberg said in a statement. He is a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Reducing Special Education Costs Through Efficiencies

Several Michigan districts just went through that situation, said Scott Menzel, the superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Michigan. Walberg's congressional district includes parts of Washtenaw County. 

"They weren't eliminating programs, they were modifying wages," Menzel said. The IDEA also has built-in safeguards to monitor districts to make sure they're not cutting back on program quality, he said. 

AASA, the School Superintendents Association, is one of the primary backers of the bill. Other supporters include the Council of Administrators of Special Education, a group that represents district-level special education chiefs, and the National Rural Education Association. 

"Districts are being told to do more with less all the time," said Sasha Pudelski, the AASA's assistant director for policy and advocacy. "But they can't realize savings, because of the way the law is written." 

So what are the chances that this bill will be taken up? The Senate just started floor debate Tuesday on its proposed revisions to the law now known as No Child Left Behind, but that legislation would still have to be reconciled with a House version. The White House has signaled that it's not in love with either the House or the Senate's efforts, though the Senate replacement bill gets higher marks

But Pudelski noted that John Kline, the chairman of the House education committee, has stated that special education is an important issue for him. Kline has argued on behalf of more special education funding, for example. Putting out the bill now will at least get people talking about the issue, she said. 

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