From Transformational to Informational

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!

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