Welcome to the Hotel Maryland Ave
Special education has been one of the few spending areas largely exempted from budget pressure since revenues took a hit following the 2008-09 financial crisis. This is due largely to maintenance of effort requirements that put districts in danger of losing federal dollars if they dared to touch the special ed budget. The Department of Education issued guidance to ease the burden last year but announced last week that they're pulling the rug out from under administrators, caving to special interests "after further review" (and, not incidentally, following an angry letter from activists at the Center for Law and Education). The new guidance states that once a district commits to a given level of spending on special education, it can (almost) never cut back, a very tough mandate given the present fiscal environment for schools.
Students with special needs certainly deserve additional resources to help them be successful in the classroom. Almost no one questions that nearly forty years after the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, thanks to that law and the work of advocates. However, ring-fencing the money dedicated to these students puts the majority of students served in the general education program at greater peril as they are exposed to 100 percent of the reductions needed to balance district budgets.
Obsessing about maintenance of effort also hides the reality that money does not guarantee quality.
This makes the decision of whether to identify a child for special education services very high-stakes—on one side of the fence, he or she is protected by a bevy of state and federal laws and cannot legally be exposed to real-world budget pressures; on the other, it is assumed that the youngster is a generic quantity and deserves far fewer protections. With dramatic growth in special-ed identification driving much of the increases in costs for these programs (not increased per-pupil spending), this raises the specter of a growing divide between educational "haves" and "have nots."
Obsessing about maintenance of effort also hides the reality that money does not guarantee quality. As we noted last year in our brief on special education, identification rates and staffing ratios vary significantly from state to state in special education programs. Mindlessly requiring that states spend the same as they did in the previous year, regardless of how well those efforts panned out for kids, is a terrible way to ensure quality.
Although the guidance issued by the Education Department last year was not legally binding, states and districts would presumably like to be able rely on the Department's advice. Further, Maryland Ave's abrupt volte-face on this issue seems to be motivated by political pressure, not on a sober reconsideration of the facts. District leaders are not served by regulators dancing on strings; the Department should endeavor in the future to give reliable advice and provide needed relief from mandates so schools can weather tough times with as light an impact as possible on their entire student populations.