The Advocate, September 2015
Dan Domenech, Executive Director
AASA, The School Superintendents Association
As another school year begins, many school district leaders are once again tasked with proving how they are “doing more with less.”
A superintendent’s tenure is often tested, however unrealistically, by whether or not he or she can demonstrate that, even given fewer resources, more students are learning at higher rates, and dollars are being used more efficiently than in the past. But, even with the cleverest of finance directors, superintendents and pupil service directors can be stymied in their efforts by federal policy barriers. The best example of this roadblock is the maintenance of effort provisions found in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
As Congress continues to fail to provide even 40 percent of the 40 percent it owes states and districts for educating students with disabilities, the maintenance of effort framework in IDEA has become a significant hindrance to district leaders trying to fill budget shortfalls from the federal, state and/or local level.
The “maintenance of effort” (MoE) provisions are intended to ensure education funding is cut as little as possible in tough economic times and that federal funding does not take the place of other money that should be coming from state and local coffers. However, the 100 percent MoE requirement for IDEA—in contrast to the 90 percent MoE requirement for Title I—means there is far less wiggle room for districts facing across-the-board funding shortfalls to reduce special education expenditures even if it is the equitable or reasonable thing to do and can be done without negatively impacting student services.
While IDEA currently provides district leaders with a few exceptions, such as a decrease in special education enrollment to readjusting their current special education funding levels, the recession acutely highlighted how the exceptions need to be broadened at the local level.
In July, AASA spearheaded the introduction of an important bill in Congress that will provide districts with flexibility to ensure they are not wrongly penalized for changes in their special education funding levels that in no way impact the provision of special education to students with disabilities. The bill is called the Building on Local District (BOLD) Flexibility in IDEA Act (HR 2965). It adds two additional exceptions to the MoE provisions in IDEA. The first allows districts to reduce special education spending if they are increasing the efficiency of their special education programs and there is no impact on the provision of special education services to students. The second allows districts to reduce the MoE level if the reduction in expenditures is related to employment-related benefits provided to special education personnel (such as pay, retirement contributions, health insurance) as long as the reduction does not result in a decline in the provision of special education services to students.
The bill also allows districts to apply to the State for a waiver to reduce MoE if they’re facing a serious financial crisis and can provide evidence they’re in compliance with IDEA. This waiver option is available under Title I and would bring IDEA and Title I in closer alignment.
While Congress is still focused on finishing the ESEA reauthorization process, this bill stands as an important marker of the policy fixes that AASA will be prioritizing in our push to reauthorize IDEA. Across the country, district leaders are re-negotiating contracts with vendors and unions, repurposing technology or equipment, or creating site-specific programs for students with specific disabilities that have made their special education programs stronger and reduced special education expenditures. The federal government should incentivize these responsible and innovative actions by district leaders and not prohibit districts from realizing the savings they find in their special education programs.
The bold flexibility in IDEA acknowledges that school system leaders must comply with IDEA as well as honor their fiduciary duty to allocate resources economically to the taxpayers in a district. Unnecessarily maintaining special education funding levels because of an inflexible federal requirement does not allow districts to efficiently allocate limited resources to serve the maximum number of students. Savings that districts realize in their local special education expenditures should be allowed to be reallocated to the general education budget—or to fill budget holes—so administrators can dedicate these resources in a manner that best serves all of their students.
We are proud to partner with the Council of Administrators in Special Education and the Association of School Business Officials in lobbying for this important change to IDEA. If your district would benefit by the incorporation of this bill into IDEA, please take a moment to reach out to your representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives and ask them to co-sponsor HR 2965. You can read more about the bill on the AASA Leading Edge blog.