Accelify Blog

Schools Wrestle With ‘Unfunded Mandates’ (VA)

May 25, 2010

Steve Catalano, chairman of the Greene County Board of Supervisors, said earlier this month that localities are under attack by higher governments that mandate programs they do not adequately fund.

At least two of those programs can be found within the Greene County School System: the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

With a shortfall of more than $1 million in state funding, the school system’s total operating budget for the Fiscal Year ending June 30, 2011 is nearly $30 million. The county will be contributing more than $10 million to that amount. To do so, “We cut other departments and reached into revenues on future growth projects,” said Buggs Peyton, Board vice-chairman.

The mandated programs IDEA and NCLB make up approximately $2 million of that amount – and there’s nothing the county or the school system can do about it.

“Neither the state nor the localities can decide which federal programs to accept,” explained Randy Corpening, special service director for the county’s school system. “It is all or nothing. The state has a very active division within the Virginia Department of Education for monitoring of federal programs compliance by the school divisions.

“School divisions must comply with all federal and state regulations,” Corpening continued. “the penalties vary, but can range from loss of funding, both federal and state, to the state actually taking over the schools.”

IDEA is a federal law that governs how early intervention, special education and related services are provided to children with disabilities. It addresses the educational needs of children with disabilities from age two to age 21 in cases that involve 14 specified categories of disability.

Those categories are: autism; deafness; deaf-bl indness; developmental delay; emotional disability; hearing impairment; intellectual disability; multiple disabilities; other health impairment; orthopedic impairment; specific learning disability; speech-language impairment; traumatic brain injury; and visual impairment including blindness.

The IDEA and its predecessor statute, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, arose from federal case law holding that the deprivation of free public education to disabled children constitutes a deprivation of due process. But it has grown in scope and form over the years, having been reauthorized and re-amended a number of times, most recently in 2004.

At that time Congress’ intended outcome for each child with a disability was clarified. In addition to providing for each child’s functional needs, public schools, at public expense, must see to it that each child is prepared for further education, employment and independent living via an education that equals that given non-handicapped children.

To ensure that a school system is in compliance, the law permits parents or legal guardians to initiate a due process hearing for failure to comply and bring a subsequent civil action challenging an adverse determination at the hearing.

Last year the Greene County School System spent $5,516,234 on special education, mostly for the salaries of special education teachers and various types of therapists.

And those expenses can start kicking in when a child is two years old.

In the Greene County pre-school program alone, “the cost for staff assigned to the Special Ed program is (more than) $205,000,” said Kim Powell, Business and Facilities Director for Greene County Public Schools. “The federal government mandates that these children rec eive services but it provides less than $25,000 in funding to support the program. Recent stimulus funds provided some boost but the locality is still left with approximately $180,000 in cost to cover.”

The Virginia Pre-School Initiative also picks up some of the cost for the local pre-school program, but does not cover it all.

That program, explains Kathryn “Kaki” Payne, pre-school program coordinator, is designed to serve children who do not qualify for Head Start – a federal program that began in 1965 to provide comprehensive education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families.

“About 10 years ago the state recognized that there are children who do not qualify for Head Start whose families are still financially or educationally at risk,” Payne said. “That program is financed, in part, by proceeds from lottery money, and the locality pays for part, so it is a dually-funded program.”

Powell said this initiative has been relatively well-funded: it costs approximately $170,000 and the state budget for the current Fiscal Year was more than $135,000.

That left $35,000 for the county to fund – an amount that is line with its Local Composite Index of ability to pay.

As for NCLB: This 2002 Act was intended to improve reading and math test scores at public schools when it was signed into law in January 2002 by President George W. Bush.

Because a district’s and state’s performance on NCLB measures were dependent on improved performance by students with disabilities, particularly students with learning disabilities, Congress backed massive increases in funding for elementary and secondary education funding – along with increases in ID EA funding.

Supporters of NCLB claim the legislation encourages accountability in public schools and focuses attention on the academic achievement of traditionally under-served groups of children, such as low-income students, students with disabilities, and students of racial and ethnic subgroups.

However, even before the law’s passage, there were questions about funding: Secretary of Education Rod Paige noted that ensuring that children were educated was a state responsibility regardless of federal support.

“Washington is willing to help [with the additional costs of federal requirements], as we’ve helped before, even before we [proposed NCLB],” Paige said. “But this is a part of the teaching responsibility that each state has. … Washington has offered some assistance now. In the legislation, we have … some support to pay for the development of tests. But even if that should be looked at as a gift, it is the state responsibility to do this.”

Various early Democratic supporters of NCLB criticized its implementation, claiming it was not adequately funded by either the federal government or the states. Senator Ted Kennedy, the legislation’s initial sponsor, was one of those.

“The tragedy is that these long overdue reforms are finally in place, but the funds are not,” Kennedy said.

But funding is not the only issue detractors have with the program: NCLB requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades – if those states are to receive federal funding for schools.

Those assessments – called Standards of Learning, or SOL—are set by each individual state, but all students in each state are required to take the same test under the same conditions.

Detractors claim that the practice of giving all students the same test, under the same conditions, is cultural bias because different cultures may value different skills. They also argue that NCLB conflicts with IDEA, which states that schools must accommodate disabled students.

But if schools do not adhere to the NCLB mandates, they are penalized.

As a result, say critics, incentives are to set expectations lower rather than higher. States could lower their official standards and achievement goals; teachers could be motivated to “teach to the test.”

One education critic has said that the NCLB law’s main effect has been to sentence poor children to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills.

Further, because NCLB puts pressure on schools to guarantee that nearly all students will meet minimum skill levels and requires nothing beyond, gifted, talented and other high-performing students may be neglected.

Currently, NCLB requires that 100 percent of students – including disadvantaged and special education students – reach the same state standards in reading and mathematics by 2014. But there is opposition to that requirement.

The Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind is a proposal by more than 135 national civil rights, education, disability advocacy, civic, labor and religious groups that have signed on to a statement calling for major changes to NCLB. The number of organizations signing the statement continues to grow.

Still, the Greene County School Board requested that supervisors dip into county reserves to fund more of the schools’ needs – and it refused to do so.
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Instead, Catalano has consistently suggested, taxpayers should contact their state and local legislators.