Fine Print: Federal Waiver for Special Education Cuts

Federal agency gives New Jersey the OK to make a one-time cut of $26 million in special education funding

Summary: The U.S. Department of Education gives New Jersey a one-year pass from the so-called maintenance of effort requirement that demands no cuts be made in special education funding.

What it means: The waiver request was no certainty, one of a few granted by the federal government, and left the state potentially in the hole to restore an estimated $25.7 million in funding. The state provides about $1.2 billion overall in special education aid.

Extraordinary circumstances: The waivers have typically been few and far between, granted only due to “exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances.” Before last year, for instance, one of the few granted was to the state of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Four have been granted this year, all due to dropping tax revenues.

Key line: “We do so carefully and reluctantly, given the importance we place on maintaining State financial support for our most vulnerable students.”

The math worked in the state’s favor: The state’s cut represented a 2 percent reduction in special education funding from 2009-2010 levels, significantly less than the 13 percent state aid cut overall and the 19 percent cut in general education aid.

Regrets from special ed community: “We’re very disappointed, because we know a lot of the impact of the cuts was in special education programs in high-needs communities,” said Peg Kinsell, director of public policy, Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN).

A future warning: The feds said they will do a follow-up audit to insure the cuts weren’t even deeper. The letter also said the state is required to maintain special education funding going into next year at the same $1.2 billion level that would have been required without the waiver.

Public disclosure: The state is required to post this letter “prominently” on its website, and also to publicly report any updates to its special education advisory board by this summer. A link to the waiver request and this correspondence is indeed on the state Department of Education’s office of special education web page.