Budget cuts, both local and federal, have negatively affected special education programs, contributing to higher class sizes, largercase loads and fewer resources, and making it increasingly difficult for teachers to provide services to students. But some say Tuesday's federal budget deal could be a step in the right direction to ease those burdens.
A recent poll from a consortium of special education policy organizations revealed that, out of more than 1,000 special education staffers nationwide, nearly three-quarters at least partially blamed across-the-board federal cuts known as sequestration for budget cuts in the last year.
Despite the fact that there is a federal regulation that by and large prohibits funding cuts from special education budgets, a vast majority of the respondents – 94 percent – said their school districts had been affected by budget cuts, and 83 percent said those budget cuts had affected the delivery of special education services. The poll was conducted by the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education & Related Services (NCPSSERS), and released Dec. 3.
Another 9 percent said they anticipated that the cuts would affect special education delivery "in the near future."
Kim Hymes, co-chair of the NCPSSERS and senior director of policy and advocacy at the Council for Exceptional Children, says it is alarming that so many respondents said their special education budgets have been harmed.
"Certainly this raises a concern for us about whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need," Hymes says.
As a result of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a "maintenance of effort" provision requires states maintain or increase their spending for special education programs each year, with a few exceptions. The Department of Education is expected to soon reaffirm its interpretation of the regulation, although many educators and administrators condemned the current interpretation in a comment period that ended Tuesday.
But Hymes says when education budgets are shrinking at both the federal and state levels, it puts an even greater pressure on local school districts to ensure they are meeting the needs of their students.
"Our concern is that students with disabilities not only are legally required to receive special education and related services to meet their needs, but from our perspective, it is a moral imperative that they have that access," Hymes says.
Overall, about 73 percent of the respondents to the NCPSSERS survey said recent budget cuts were at least in part due to sequestration, which slashed $2 billion from the Department of Education.
Although the budget deal reached by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Tuesday night would do away with most of the sequester cuts for the next two years, Hymes says it's not enough to simply restore previous funding levels.
"It's not good enough to just hold steady with what we have, because we know the impact of what we have right now. We see it in this survey," Hymes says. "Holding steady is important to stop future cuts, but it is certainly not where we believe we need to be."
The most common problem that has surfaced because of budget cuts, according to the survey, was an increase in teachers' case loads. More than three-quarters of the respondents said case loads had increased, while nearly two-thirds said class sizes had also increased.
At least half of the respondents said the overall budget cuts had translated into programmatic funding cuts for special education, and had reduced professional development opportunities for teachers.
"Students with disabilities have a variety of academic, behavioral, social, developmental needs that are all individualized and customized to reflect what they need to be addressed, so they can thrive in an academic environment," Hymes says. "When you have higher case loads, higher class sizes, the ability to do that becomes more challenging because you're addressing the individual needs of more kids."