Closer Look: How States Determine Local District Performance

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.

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