Will Students with Disabilities Benefit or Will Flexibility Derail Meaningful Change?In February 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) to provide federal funding to states to help the nation's struggling economy. The ARRA also provided additional federal funds to strengthen and protect educational opportunities, including a significant amount of supplemental federal funds for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In fact, the IDEA funding provided by ARRA is roughly equal to the amount that states and school districts are receiving through the regular annual federal funding allotment in Fiscal Year 2009 (FY09) — resulting in a doubling of federal funds in one year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the ARRA funds:
"provide an unprecedented opportunity for states, Local Education Agencies (LEA), and Early Intervening Services programs to implement innovative strategies to improve outcomes for infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities while stimulating the economy."Given the current outcomes for students with learning disabilities, as outlined in our new report The State of Learning Disabilities, this influx of additional funding — allowed to be spent over the next two school years — will provide ample opportunities for supporting services for the nation's 6 million school-age students with disabilities — almost half of whom have learning disabilities.
However, the IDEA contains a provision that applies to the ARRA IDEA funds. This provision — intended to allow school districts the flexibility to slightly reduce the amount of local funds spent on the excess costs of special education (otherwise know as "maintenance of effort" or MOE ) when federal funding increases — now threatens to displace a significant portion of the ARRA IDEA funds. The MOE provision — and many of the issues emerging because of it — is the subject of the "Stimulus Brings Spec. Ed. Funding Challenge" article in Education Week and is also being covered extensively by IDEA Money Watch, an independent project seeking to track the use of IDEA funding provided by the ARRA. Last week the U.S. Department of Education announced plans to begin tracking how many districts utilize this flexibility and to what extent. This will provide critical information to parents and advocates working to see that this provision is used responsibly.
The unexpected infusion of IDEA federal funds has challenged states and districts to think quickly about potential uses that will improve student performance while at the same time cautiously avoiding the creation of jobs and programs that can't be sustained once the ARRA funds are gone. Guidance provided by state departments of education is, in some cases, helping districts formulate plans and avoid the misuse of federal funds. The states of Wisconsin and New Jersey, for example, have provided detailed guidance to their school districts — guidance that is helping districts spend IDEA ARRA funds responsibly and quickly — as is intended. Also, school districts such as the Northeast Independent School District in San Antonio, TX (profiled in NCLD's 2007 report, Challenging Change: How Schools and Districts are Improving the Performance of Special Education Students) are investing their extra IDEA ARRA funds in professional development opportunities for all teachers to ensure teachers are prepared to teach in diversified settings, increase capacity to use technology including assistive devices for teaching and learning, and support early intervening services for at-risk students by increasing implementation of multi-tiered instruction and discipline through Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS).
The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) is working with IDEA Money Watch to ensure that the Obama Administration, Members of Congress and their staff hear from parents and other advocates on this issue. We want the ARRA investment in special education to lead to meaningful improvements in the academic outcomes of students with learning disabilities including better high school graduation rates, decreased drop out rates and increases in the number of students attending college.