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S.C. Chief Asks Lawmakers for $36 Million More for Special Education

South Carolina has been denied a second extension of a $36 million penalty in federal special education money, a penalty imposed because the state didn't spend enough money on special education during the 2009-10 school year.

In a letter earlier this month, Deputy Education Secretary Anthony Miller told South Carolina Superintendent Mick Zais the state had time to find $36 million in its state budget because it was already granted a delay of the federal penalty, which could have been imposed last July.

States that cut special education spending without getting federal permission first can be penalized: The U.S. Department of Education can cut the same amount of money from a state's federal share of special education dollars. These so-called "maintenance of effort" rules built into federal law are intended to buffer students with disabilities from dramatic changes in services educators have found they need.

States rarely have requested exceptions to keeping special education spending stable until the current recession.

The Education Department agreed that South Carolina's budget situation justified cutting some of its special education budget—the state originally faced a $111 million cut in federal special education funds—but not everything the state has cut over the last four years.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently visited South Carolina, and Zais asked for a meeting with the secretary and Democratic Congressman James Clyburn. But he was turned down. So last week Zais asked the state legislature to find the money in its budget to make up for the federal cut, which will happen Oct. 1.

The federal Education Department hasn't yet ruled on his appeal of the penalty, one made last August. Winning the appeal could keep South Carolina from having its federal share of special education dollars permanently affected.

As Zais notes in his letter to state lawmakers, the federal penalty's effect could be felt by students.

"While I have persistently pleaded with USDE to listen to reason, those pleas have been rejected by the bureaucracy of the USDE. The children, not the adults, will be the ones hurt by this decision," he wrote. "Accordingly, the state must act to prevent an adverse impact on students with disabilities."

The state House has already voted on a budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, but the Senate hasn't finalized its spending plan and could adjust its proposal to accommodate Zais' request.

South Carolina spends about $410 million on its 100,000 students with disabilities.

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