Sequester hits special education like 'ton of bricks'

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WASHINGTON — Since the first day of class for most schools in Michigan last week, Marcie Lipsitt's phone has been ringing nonstop with parents distraught about cuts to their children's special education services.

A new round of special education cuts were taking hold, prompted by a 5 percent reduction in federal funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), said Lipsitt, a longtime advocate for disabled children and co-chair of the Michigan Alliance for Special Education.

Lipsitt said it means that many schools have eliminated resource rooms where children can go to get help in areas such as math, reading, writing and organizational skills. Many schools will have fewer speech, occupational or physical therapists, along with social workers and school psychologists, which means students who previously received speech therapy twice a week might only receive it once week, for example. And in some general education classrooms that had two teachers — one for the whole class and one specifically to support students with special needs — the special education teacher has been eliminated.

Estimated reductions in dollars in federal funding to the states in fiscal year 2013 for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Part B Grants, following 5 percent sequestration cuts.

"For Michigan, it hit like a ton of bricks," Lipsitt said. "Conditions are eroding and children are not being allowed to become taxpayers. They're not being given access to independence, being productive, being ready for a global workforce."

Across the country, advocates for children with disabilities are grappling with the impact of sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that kicked in when Congress failed to reach an agreement to reduce the federal budget. Although the cuts took effect March 1, the impact did not reach schools until the start of the current school year because of the way many education programs are funded.

Experts agree there is little hard data on the impact of the budget cuts on special education. The U.S. Department of Education estimates the sequester cut about $579 million in federal funding for IDEA Part B, which supports students age 3-21 with specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, autism or emotional disturbances.

The National Education Association estimates that if states and local school systems did not replace any of the funds lost through sequestration, nearly 300,000 students receiving special education services would be affected. The union estimated up to 7,800 jobs could be lost as a result of the federal budget cuts.

All told, 6.5 million disabled children from ages 3-21 received services funded by the IDEA in the fall of 2011, the most recent number available.

It is unknown how many states or schools districts will replace some or all of that money from other sources, such as new tax revenues or cuts to other programs. But they may hesitate to replace federal funding even if they have the resources. That's because by law, states and school districts that raise their funding for special education and then later reduce it, after adjusting for enrollment and other factors, can see their funding from the federal government cut. That requirement, known as maintenance of effort, means that even if the federal government eventually replaces the money cut through the sequester, school districts will be on the hook to spend more than they did before the automatic federal budget cuts.

Because of the maintenance of effort requirement, many school districts have worked hard even through several years of state budget cuts to preserve special education funding to avoid risking their federal special education funding.

Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of public policy and advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said that as a result, "Over the course of the recession, the cuts in a school district's budget have disproportionately been on general education students," although disabled students are often affected along with everybody else by reductions in services to general education students, such as larger class size.

But in a survey by AASA earlier this year on the impact of the recession on schools, more superintendents indicated that special education spending would decline for the first time in the nearly five years the survey has been conducted. Ellerson said that in previous years, school systems were able to cover the cuts in federal funding, but superintendents indicated this year they can no longer do so because of continuing recessionary pressures and the depth of the sequestration cuts.