Archive for the ‘Balance Sheet’ Category

From Transformational to Informational

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Happy Birthday, IDEA Money Watch! Last March, before the ink was hardly dry on P.L. 111-5, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, IDEA Money Watch was up and running – providing tons of information and resources to help parents and advocates begin to track how $11.3 billion in additional funding for IDEA Part B (611, school-age children) would be used by the nation’s 14,000+ school districts.

We were excited! Excited about this one-time infusion of funds to support needed improvements in the services and supports for our 6 million school-age students with disabilities eligible under the IDEA. Many considered it an opportunity for an investment in truly transformational activities. And, since the Obama administration promised “unprecedented transparency,” all the better for those wanting to play a role in how this extra money would be spent.

One year later, we realize that our purpose has changed from playing a central role in a transformational experience to attempting to fill an informational black hole. As we reported in our last Balance Sheet, What Ten Months Have Taught Us, this project lead to discoveries we never imagined, nor particularly cared to confront.

We have faced the reality that much of what people thought would be funds spent on improving special education services and supports would, in fact, be supplanted by many local school districts because of a prickly little provision in IDEA. And that, furthermore, a district could use IDEA federal funds to pay for items previously funded with local funds as long as it maintains its level of local funding for special education. OK – at least the money is going to fund special education costs.

However, along the way one little detail seems to have been forgotten. It’s clearly stated in USED guidance, IDEA law and regulations. Here it is:

IDEA federal funds must only be used
for the excess costs of providing special education.

What, exactly, does this mean? Well, we turned to the excellent guidance provided by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (we long ago acknowledged Wisconsin as the BEST state web site for information on IDEA Recovery Act funds). The Wisconsin Frequently Asked Questions page provides this helpful information:

“How can you determine if a cost is an excess cost of providing special education services?

When determining whether a cost is an excess cost, ask the following guiding questions.

In the absence of special education needs, would this cost exist?
If the answer is…
No, then the cost is an excess cost and may be eligible.
Yes, then the cost is not an excess cost and is not allowed.

Is this cost also generated by students without disabilities?
If the answer is…
No, then the cost is an excess cost and may be eligible.
Yes, then the cost is not an excess cost and is not allowed.

If it is a child specific service, is the service documented in the student’s IEP?
If the answer is…
Yes, then the cost is an excess cost and may be eligible .

No, then the cost is not an excess cost and is not allowed.”

Seems simple enough to us! Yet we see district spending plans that include items that surely can’t pass this test. Take, for example, the spending plan for the Trumbull school district in Connecticut.  According to the application submitted to the CT DOE, Trumbull will spend several thousand dollars to provide 2 modular classrooms for overcrowded elementary schools.  No “excess cost” there! Trumbull would have overcrowded classrooms regardless of its students with disabilities — so using student growth doesn’t pass the “excess cost” test. Trumbull will also spend thousands ($264,000) more for digital whiteboards for 5th grades and middle schools. Unless these whiteboards are additional equipment needed to fulfill the special education services required by the Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) of students (i.e., above and beyond the equipment purchased to educate non-disabled students in Trumbull), purchasing this equipment is not an “excess cost” of special education. Seems like Trumbull is purchasing whiteboards for every 5th grade and middle school classroom in the district. (According to Trumbull’s 2007-2008 profile, the district has 619 students with IEPs.)

Here again, we turn to Wisconsin’s FAQ which states:

“Can IDEA Recovery funds be used for classroom technology like SMART boards?

IDEA Recovery funds must only be used for the excess costs of providing special education. Acquisition of SMART board technology is not an excess cost of providing special education if the LEA has decided to equip classrooms in a school and simply charges the IDEA grant a prorated amount based upon the number of children with disabilities in the school. The equipment is an excess cost of special education when related to the needs of a child with a disability in accordance with the IEP of the child. It may be provided in a regular education class or other education-related setting, even if one or more nondisabled children benefit. When the equipment is no longer needed to meet the IEP needs of a child with a disability, it must be managed or disposed of in accordance with 34 CFR §80.32, Education Department General Administrative Regulations.”

The Bottom Line

Beginning to get the picture? Get ahold of the IDEA Recovery Act spending plan for your school district. Then put it to the “excess cost” test.  If a proposed expenditure doesn’t pass the “excess cost” test, ask the district for justification.

Let us know what you find!

Closer Look: How States Determine Local District Performance

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has made us look closely at provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that would otherwise have gotten little more than a nod. As we reported in What’s in a Rating, the IDEA provision allowing local educational agencies (LEAs, aka, local school districts) to reduce the amount of local funds expended on the excess cost of educating students with disabilities when federal funds increase took on new significance when the Recovery Act dumped more than $12 billion into the IDEA allocation for FY09.

We quickly learned (via U.S. Department of Education (USEd) guidance on ARRA) that LEAs could ONLY take advantage of this provision if they had received a “meets requirements” rating from the state on  implementation of IDEA as measured by the indicators in the State Performance Plan (SPP). That eye-opener lead us to start looked at just how the States had been instructed to go about determining the annual “ratings” for local districts.  We discovered that the USEd’s  Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) had issued lots of guidance to states about how to make the annual determinations (ratings) of LEAs. We learned, for example, that OSEP told States that they need only consider how LEAs performed on a few compliance indicators of the State Performance Plan (SPP)…and need not consider how LEAs did on any of the performance indicators of the SPP — stuff like graduating with a regular diploma, performing at a proficient level on state assessments.

Closer Look.

The Center for Law and Education (CLE) has taken a hard look at both the federal regulations and the federal guidance issued by USEd. In its memorandum released August 11, 2009, CLE provides an authoritative legal analysis of  all guidance to States. CLE has concluded that, based on both the intent and plain language of Congress, there seems to be no statutory authority for USEd’s guidance allowing States to limit their determinations of whether LEAs meet the requirements of IDEA to exclude consideration of performance indicators. According to CLE, the language of the statute plainly requires that LEAs consider and meet all of the targets contained in their State’s performance plan in order to be able to reduce their local level of expenditures (MOE) when federal funding increase.

The Bottom Line.

There are lots of unintended consequences attached to the whopping one-time increase in IDEA federal funds brought about by the ARRA. One of them is that it has made us take this closer look at the State Performance Plans and Annual Performance Reports, the guidance issued by USEd, and the all-important Legislative intent of IDEA 2004.

IDEA Money Watch doesn’t see any legitamacy to OSEP’s  guidance — particularly when taken in the context of No Child Left Behind (the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) which requires all students — including students with disabilities – to be proficient on state assessments.

OSEP has stated that, according to them, graduation with a regular high school diploma isn’t a goal of IDEA….neither is scoring proficient on state assessments (via either an alternate assessment or the regular assessment with accommodations).  However, OSEP must have questioned the requirements it outlined for the States. In a FAQ document issued to States in October 2006, OSEP poses this question among its list of issues and challenges for the States,  What is the message the State sends to the public if the criteria for making determinations relies solely on program’s performance on procedural compliance indicators?” We are learning the answer to that question more quickly than many would have thought. This approach doesn’t foster improvement for students with disabilities — it forces districts to focus on issues of compliance at the expense of student performance. And now, it has also allowed local districts with dismal performance to shift millions of dollars away from special education.

We can only hope that parents and advocates question the  process sanctioned by OSEP….and encourage their state department of education to take a comprehensive approach to determining the performance of local districts, as well as setting rigorous targets for all indicators in the State Performance Plan.

Endnote: Readers wanting to learn more about the SPP and APR process are invited to review the archive of our Webinar on this topic…its free and available here.

What’s in a Rating?

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Plenty, according to the U.S. Department of Education (USED). Many were surprised…even amazed to learn by way of the USED Guidance on Use of IDEA funds provided by the ARRA that local educational agencies (LEAs, aka school districts) would need to receive a “Meets Requirements” rating from the state (based on the LEA’s performance on the State Performance Plan)  in order to take advantage of IDEA’s provision allowing a reduction in its local level of expenditures on special education by up to 50% of any increase received from one fiscal year to the next.

Given the extraordinary circumstances brought about by the one-time IDEA supplemental appropriation that Congress provided in the ARRA, these LEA ratings suddenly became a BIG DEAL. The IDEA provision, intended to provide LEAs with some level of relief if/when Congress increases annual appropriations for IDEA, was based on the assumption that increases would be both gradual and sustained. Since the provision assumed a sustained increase, IDEA also allows the new, lower level of local expenditures to become the LEA’s new “maintenance of effort” — the amount of local funds the LEA must expend from one year to the next to be in compliance with the law and steer clear of “supplanting” issues. No one ever imagined the circumstances brought about by the IDEA ARRA funds — a giant increase with nothing to indicate that the increase in federal annual appropriations in coming years will be anything close to the amount provided by ARRA.

Foul cried some … “who knew” sobbed others. Well, the language requiring states to prohibit LEAs from reducing their local expenditures when increases occur had been hiding right in plain sight all the time. It’s in IDEA’s Section 616,  Monitoring, Technical Assistance, and Enforcement. Nobody had paid this little bit of statutory language much attention since increases in federal IDEA appropriations have been small, few and far between since the law’s enactment back in 1975. Now, here comes the ARRA and its big surprise — a supplemental appropriation for IDEA, all to be counted as FY09 funds, that is equal to the amount provided in FY09 for most LEAs. Now we’re talking serious money … and the LEAs suddenly have a lot riding on those RATINGS.

Federal IDEA Part B 611 Appropriations

Federal IDEA Part B 611 Appropriations

That’s our story and we’re stickin’ with it, said USED. In an addendum to its April 1, 2009 guidance, on April 13th USED modified its explanation of its original intrepretation regarding use of IDEA’s local level of expenditures provision (now known as the infamous D-7) maintaining its original interpretation.

Yippeecried the advocates … “About timeexclaimed gleeful parents. At least some of the more than 14,000 LEAs in the nation will need to spend all of their ARRA funds on improving services for IDEA-eligible students (while also maintaining the level of their local funding for special education)! Given the dismal outcomes of students with disabilities in the U.S., it seems only fair that LEAs found to be out of compliance with IDEA should be required to use the ARRA windfall funds to do better — by adding the new funds to their current level of expenditures.

The bottom line. Wait a minute. Turns out, the ratings given to LEAs are based on compliance data … stuff like the validity,  reliability and timeliness of the data  submitted by the LEA;  evidence of uncorrected noncompliance in the past; and any audit findings. While there are several important performance indicators in the State Performance Plan — such as graduation and dropout rate, proficiency in reading and math on state assessments, instruction in the least restrictive environment — how an LEA is doing on these performance indicators doesn’t count in the determination of the rating. (Take, for example, the performance of students with disabilities in Nevada’s Clark County School District, 5th largest district in the nation.) And, states are not required to report the LEA ratings to the public, making it hard to obtain this important piece of information.

IDEA Money Watch is busy obtaining the LEA ratings for every state in the nation. So far we have LEA ratings for 18 states available from our homepage under Blog Bytes. What we are finding is that most states rate most LEAs as “Meets Requirements” — making them eligible to take advantage of IDEA’s provision to reduce local expenditures by up to 50% of the increase they receive in federal IDEA funds. We’ll keep posting the rating until we have every state. Check back if your state isn’t listed yet.

Postnote: IDEA Money Watch wishes to thank the Center for Law and Education for its assistance in obtaining the LEA ratings from states that do not make the ratings publicly available.