Promises, promises …

March 2nd, 2011

President Obama released his proposed budget for FY 2012 on February 14, 2011. But long before that, Candidate Obama made this commitment if elected :

Fully Funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Barack Obama has been a strong and consistent advocate for fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Congress promised to shoulder 40 percent of each state’s “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities, but it has never lived up to this obligation. Currently, the federal government provides less than half of the promised funding (17 percent). Children are being shortchanged, and their parents are forced to fight with cash-strapped school districts to get the free and appropriate education the IDEA promises their children. Fully funding IDEA will provide students with disabilities the public education they have a right to, and school districts will be able to provide services without cutting into their general education budgets. In addition to fully funding IDEA, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will ensure effective implementation and enforcement of the Act.”

Source: Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan To Empower Americans With Disabilities

So much for promises. Obama’s proposed budget provides just $200 million more for federal funding of the IDEA – a meager increase in the face of a funding shortfall that measures some $14 billion. As the chart below shows, the IDEA Part B (grants to states) appropriation is so far off the mark for “Full funding” that it doesn’t even equal HALF of the promised amount.

IDEA funding chart

Source: New America Foundation

So what, exactly, is “full funding” of IDEA? The term is misleading, and, therefore, the funding “promise” made by Congress in IDEA is often misrepresented. Its really pretty simple, however. Back in 1975 when Congress enacted original special education law – then called the Education of All Handicapped Children Act and later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Congress set a maximum target for the federal contribution to special education spending equal to 40 percent of the estimated excess cost of educating children with disabilities. At the time, Congress estimated that educating children with disabilities would cost approximately twice as much as it costs to educate non-disabled children. So, Congress committed to providing 40% of the excess cost of providing special education (not 100% as is often reported), and set the federal contribution at 40% of the average per pupil expenditure (APPE) nationwide. (Note: One nationwide study showed that special education costs are 1.9 times that expended on general education students.)

So then, if IDEA were “fully funded,” the annual federal appropriation would be 40% of the national average per pupil expenditure – referred to as “APPE” – for elementary and secondary education times the number of children with disabilities served. To be clear, when sent off to local school districts around the country, that amount would not be 40% of the excess cost in every district – the percent would vary depending on how much each local district spends on education. The amount districts spend “per pupil” varies significantly across the nation! (To find out your state’s IDEA funding gap, get your State Special Education Scorecard at LD.org)

The Bottom Line

The possibility of achieving “full funding” of IDEA anytime in the near (or far) future seems extremely remote. The appropriators in Congress don’t seem to understand that this is a commitment to help offset the local districts’ expense of providing special education to eligible students with disabilities – not a  program designed to boost student achievement,  like so many of the programs funded by the U.S. Dept. of Education. In fact, contrary to the statement released with the President’s budget request, this $200 million increase will NOT “help to improve the quality of the education students with disabilities receive so they can participate in the general education curriculum to the maximum extent possible and are prepared for college and a career, or both.” Bottom line, this is really a “cost sharing” deal where one party isn’t keeping its end of the deal.

The President’s FY2012 proposed budget shows that he has no intention of keeping his campaign promise. And the upcoming Congressional debate  will likely show, once again, that the Congress also has no intention of keeping its promise.

Show Us the Waivers!

June 8th, 2010

We’ve learned that States have begun to submit requests to the U.S. Dept. of Education (USED) for waivers to reduce state financial support toward the excess costs of special education to local school districts. According to information obtained from the USED, the states of Kansas and Iowa have requested waivers and gained approval. The state of South Carolina has made a request with no decision so far.

Maintenance of state financial support – or MOE – is a requirement of IDEA – one of the conditions for States to receive federal IDEA funds. However, the IDEA gives the Secretary of Education the authority to waive the waive the MOE requirement due to exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances. Requests must be made based on “exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances such as a natural disaster or a precipitous and unforeseen decline in the financial resources of the State” says IDEA. (Text of statute here.)

IDEA Money Watch partner, the Center for Law and Education, submitted a request for information to USED asking for the following:

– All requests for a waiver of the “Maintenance of State Financial Support” requirement submitted by any State during FY 2010 pursuant to 20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(18)(C) and 34 C.F.R. § 300.163(c). Under these provisions a State may seek a waiver of the requirement of 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(18)(A) not to reduce the amount of State financial support for special education and related services for eligible children under IDEA Part B below the amount of that support for the preceding fiscal year.

– All responses of the U.S. Department of Education to each request for such a waiver submitted by any State. The Secretary may waive the “Maintenance of State Financial Support” requirement for a State, for 1 fiscal year at a time, if the Secretary determines that granting a waiver would be equitable due to exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances. 20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(18)(C)(i).

We’re still waiting for information from USED. And we’re disappointed in the federal government’s lack of transparency regarding this important issue. Seems like such information should be released to the public – both by the state requesting the waiver and by USED.

The Bottom Line

We suspect that this is only the beginning of these requests. According to a new report from the National Governors Association, “States face significant fiscal challenges going forward with the federal Recovery Act funds ending, revenues not expected to be returning to pre-recession levels, and higher demands for many services like health and education.”

As we explained in our Budget Dust and Double Trouble blog, there’s nothing coming down the pike to help local districts, many of whom have reduced their local spending on special education because of IDEA Recovery Act funds. Now, if States reduce their support of special education costs, maybe we’re headed for Triple Trouble!

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Find out about how your state funds special education! Get Financing Special Education: State Funding Formulas, a comprehensive review of state special education funding formulas.

From Transformational to Informational

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

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?

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.