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Groups Seek to Ease Spec. Ed. Funding Mandate as Schools Respond to Pandemic

A coalition of education organizations wants Congress to waive a provision in federal law that requires school districts to maintain consistent funding levels for special education from year to year.

That local "maintenance of effort" provision, part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, will present particular challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools confront unprecedented challenges and ballooning budget shortfalls, the groups said in a letter to congressional leaders Wednesday.

As schools rushed to close in response to the virus, many were forced to reorganize staff and resources to educate students remotely, the organizations wrote, and they will continue to do so as they re-open buildings under new protocols designed to limit transmission. As schools rush to reorient their budgets, they fear penalties, the groups said.

They asked Congress to include a waiver from the requirement in its next coronavirus relief package.

"Unfortunately, the maintenance of effort requirements in IDEA do not have a pandemic exception," says the letter. "Specifically, the IDEA local maintenance of effort requirements do not allow districts to adjust their special education funding that they had previously, and in good-faith, dedicated to special education efforts."

The letter was signed by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, the Association of School Business Officials International, Council of Administrators of Special Education, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the National School Boards Association. 

Some of those organizations previously pushed for waivers from other requirements of the nation's special education law, which they said schools and districts had struggled to meet in the rapid shift to remote learning.

Their efforts were met with resistance from advocates for students with disabilities, who said they needed assurances that schools would meet their legal obligations to offer services tailored to students' needs and to ensure that they don't fall behind. Many students with disabilities rely on in-person services and therapies that cannot be offered easily online.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March, gave U.S. Secretary of Education DeVos 30 days to recommend whether she should be able to grant new waivers for schools under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. In response, DeVos said she did not see a need to waive core provisions of the law, recommending only very narrow flexibility. 

In their letter Thursday, the education groups noted that the "maintenance of effort" effort in IDEA is more "stringent" than the requirements in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation's core education law. The IDEA gives DeVos authority to waive that funding requirement for states facing "exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances such as a natural disaster or a precipitous and unforeseen decline in the financial resources." But the law does not authorize the secretary to waive a similar requirement for school districts, the letter said.

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