Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Special Education and the Stimulus

The Asbury Park Press reports that the school district in New Jersey's Brick township got a $2.4 million grant to help enhance its special education program. But only half the money went to new initiatives for special education kids.

An Asbury Park Press investigation found that school districts in Monmouth and Ocean counties used the special aid to pay legal bills, expand non-special education programs and pay benefits for non-special education teachers.

What Brick and other districts did is perfectly legal, however. In fact, about 40 percent of the New Jersey school districts that received $360 million worth of special education grants from the stimulus spent as much as half of their windfall on general school purposes, compared to 44 percent nationwide, a survey by the U.S. General Accounting Office found.

The redirection of funds was possible thanks to a previously little-used provision in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal statute that guarantees children with disabilities the right to a "free and appropriate" education.

The law allows districts to use up to half of any annual increase in such federal aid to replace local tax dollars earmarked for special education, freeing up those funds for other uses

The paper editorializes:

This is a perfectly legal bait-and-switch tactic. The redirection of funds was possible thanks to a loophole in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — a loophole Congress must close.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal addressed the same topic:

"This is a slap in the face," said Candace Cortiella, director of the Advocacy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit that advises students with disabilities. "This is historic funding that could have had a huge impact with [special-education] students, and states and districts have instead chosen to minimize the amount of good."

The GAO report says:

According to some state officials, some LEAs [local education agencies] were hesitant to utilize the reduced local expenditure flexibility in the past, because the increase in their allocation—and the amount of local or state funding that could be “freed up”—was small. However, this year, the amount of funding that can be “freed up” is larger than in prior years, and using this flexibility will give LEAs, some facing budgetary pressures, more flexibility in deciding how to spend their local funds. According to state officials, LEAs that take advantage of this flexibility will not necessarily reduce their local spending by the entire 50 percent allowed under the law, but some state officials said that some LEAs may reduce local spending because they have concerns about creating unsustainable funding commitments for special education, because services cannot be easily cut after Recovery Act funds are gone.