Sequestration Devastating to Special Education

According to Marcie Lipsitt co-chair of the Michigan Alliance for Special Education, the sequestration cuts are devastating special education. There is a 5% reduction in federal funding of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 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.

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 estimated 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. 6.5 million disabled children from ages 3-21 received services funded by the

In a survey by American Association of School Administrators, 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. 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.

Those cuts further exacerbate the federal government’s chronic underfunding of its contribution toward the education of students with disabilities. Under the IDEA, the federal government committed to giving states funding for up to 40% of the difference between the cost of educating a disabled student and a general student. The most the federal government has ever given the states is 18.5% in 2005 (aside from a one-time infusion of economic stimulus funding in fiscal year 2009). Under the sequester, the federal share fell to 14.9%, the lowest federal contribution by percent dating to 2001. Federal funding aside, local school systems are obligated by law to provide children with disabilities with a free appropriate education.

The impact of the sequester on special education varies from state to state and even district to district. Many school systems have also reduced or eliminated staff development, which is critical in special education.

Virginia schools reported big cuts in budgets for materials and technologies to support students with disabilities, which can include electronic devices to help nonverbal students communicate, technology to help students who are hearing-impaired and computers to enlarge text, for example.

In Florida, Broward County this year eliminated five of 11 behavior specialists, 10 program specialists and an assistant technology position.