Ohio school districts are spending money meant for disabled students to stabilize their shaky budgets

Law change allows some money for special-ed kids to be funneled elsewhere

BY JENNIFER SMITH RICHARDS

Ohio school districts are spending money meant for disabled students to stabilize their shaky budgets,and the state has made it easier for them to do so.Statewide, schools are receiving an extra $438 million in federal stimulus money just for special education. For most districts, the influx has doubled the federal dollars they received for specialeducation.

Special-education advocates say vulnerable students are being cheated as the money is redirected,and that Ohio has taken the most extreme approach of any state that has paved the way for schools touse the money elsewhere.”It just seems completely mind-blowing to me,” said Jennifer Cohen, a policy analyst at theWashington, D.C.-based New America Foundation. She tracks stimulus spending on education. “I thinkit’s sneaky, and I know there are a lot of special-education advocates out there who are upset aboutthe implications.”The law that allows districts to take from the fund isn’t new, but it’s been rarely used in Ohio.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act says that, in years where districts receive morespecial-education funding, they can reduce their local spending by up to 50 percent of the increase.

In essence, that allows schools to spend more local money on other needs.

In Ohio, only 8 percent of districts and charter schools were qualified to use the exception in pastyears, because schools were eligible only if they showed “adequate yearly progress” in special education. But the Ohio Department of Education lowered the requirements last year. Now, 99 percent of Ohio’s613 districts and 323 charter schools are eligible.

Ohio added flexibility for its schools even as the U.S. Secretary of Education urged against doing so.Districts don’t have to meet the federal progress goal to divert funds anymore, nor do they have toprove that special-needs students are being educated in the “least restrictive environment,” whichoften means in regular classrooms.

South-Western schools and eight other central Ohio districts are among the 113 statewide now diverting $22 million, often to plug holes in their operating budgets.

State records show that in Franklin County, Reynoldsburg and Upper Arlington also have redirected disabled-student funds. So have Big Walnut and Olentangy in Delaware County; Amanda-Clearcreek in Fairfield County; Licking Heights and Northridge in Licking County; and Madison-Plains in Madison County.

South-Western is shifting $2 million worth of special-education positions from its general fund to the new stimulus money over two years. That would not have been allowed under the previous rules, because additional money is typically supposed to add services.

South-Western, the state’s sixth-largest district, received $4.6 million in special-education stimulus dollars in addition to the $4 million it regularly receives. It reported to the state that 16 special education jobs were created or retained as a result of its stimulus spending. The state Education Department says districts needed flexibility and that any money spent on general education also will benefit special-needs students.

“There are certain restrictions on how those dollars can be used. It’s not as if the districts are going to go out and build a football field or pave a parking lot with those funds,” said department spokesman Scott Blake.

It’s hard to understand why districts would want to spend the money anywhere but on their disabled students, said Margaret Burley, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities.

“For years, the school districts said they had to take money away from general education to pay for all the services that children with special needs had to have,” she said. “Now, you have a stimulus bill that almost doubles what the district was getting. You would think they would spend all of that money on children with special needs.”

Most disturbing, Burley said, are the implications that the spending reductions will have in the future.

Because federal special-education funding is based partly on how much local funding a district contributes, districts that have used the provision and now have lower levels of local funding dedicated to disabled students have set a new baseline for themselves. In other words, funding could be lower in years to come.

“Children with disabilities could lose in two ways. The local effort would be less, and the federal stimulus dollars will be gone,” Burley said.

jsmithrichards@dispatch.com

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