Millions cut from special education budget in South Carolina – Who loses?

The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) recently notified the South Carolina Department of Education that they have to restore $111 million for services to students with disabilities or face a penalty of the same amount.  Policymakers in the state reduced their budget by $36 million in the 2009/10 school year and $75 million in the 2010/11 school year.

Based on a clause in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states can petition the federal department of education for a waiver from the “maintenance of effort” rule which says spending must stay the same from year to year, or increase, regardless of the economic conditions in the state.  South Carolina is the only state that asked the USDOE three years in a row to be exempt from the rule. 

During the 2008/09 school year, the feds approved the state’s request to cut spending by roughly $20 million, or 5 percent of the budget for students with disabilities.  In the 2009/10 school year, South Carolina officials asked to cut $67 million but only $31 million (7.6 percent) was approved.  Then in 2010/11, they asked to cut another $75 million and the USDOE denied the entire budget reduction request.  In a letter to South Carolina, Alexa Posny, assistant secretary for special education, said the requested amount was 2.5 percent from the special education budget which was larger than the cut to the total state budget of less than 1 percent.

So now the state has to prove that it returned $111 million or they’ll face the same amount in federal cuts from the USDOE.  Policymakers are scrambling to get the funds back in the budget and to school districts prior to June 30 when the school calendar year ends.  A committee in the South Carolina General Assembly approved $75 million in funds for the special education budget, but they are going to fight the remaining $36 million from 2009/10.  "We respectfully disagree with their decision," said Jay W. Ragley, deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs. "State Superintendent (Mick) Zais intends to exhaust all of his administrative, legal, and legislative remedies so we will not be penalized that amount."

Over 3 school years, South Carolina officials felt it was critical to cut roughly $162 million in services to students with disabilities.  Did they request to cut the same amount, or same percentage, from other budgets like gifted and talented, career and technical education, or other school programs?  Who are the real losers in this battle over dollars?