Special-Education Programs Steel Themselves as Cuts Loom

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Aurora Ford, a fifth-grader with Down syndrome, needs regular speech classes and occupational therapy, services that are guaranteed under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. But looming federal financing cuts could affect Aurora and her peers, because they might mean bigger classes and fewer teachers next year.

"If you take away staff, it's a given that the quality of education will decrease," said Stacy Ford, Aurora's mother and a special-education advocate in Leander. "It doesn't take a Ph.D. to figure that out."

In 2011, Texas schools were hit with a $5.4 billion cut in state financing. And now that the state is also facing automatic federal spending cuts that went into effect on March 1, administrators say they are running out of cost-saving options to maintain services that receive federal money.

The Texas Education Agency estimates that for next fiscal year, up to $51 million in federal money could be slashed from special-education programs and $65.4 million from Title I, a federal initiative that aids low-income students, along with cuts to teacher professional development, career-technical programs and English language acquisition classes.

The Department of Education is expected to announce final numbers by April. In the meantime, the T.E.A. is predicting 5 to 10 percent reductions in federal financing, which makes up 11.9 percent of its overall budget. The T.E.A. will allocate financing for each district by July 1, said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the agency.

State legislators are not expected to come to the financial rescue. Representative Brandon Creighton, Republican of Conroe, chairman of the House Select Committee on Federalism and Fiscal Responsibility, said lawmakers would need to see "if there's truly an impact we need to address," before they increase financing for any programs affected by the budget cuts known as sequestration.

As federal and state financing sources disappear, the burden falls on local budgets.

"We will have to turn internally, as a district, to find a way to pick up the slack," said Carl A. Montoya, the superintendent of Brownsville Independent School District, where 95 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

For most districts, internal options include reducing staff and increasing class size. Lynse Pawelek, the special education director for Pleasanton I.S.D., just south of San Antonio, said she might be forced to lay off five paraprofessional special-education aides who serve the district's nearly 300 special-needs students. She also expects class sizes to grow. Dr. Montoya said he would probably downsize staff and programming. Robbie Stinnett, special education director for Duncanville I.S.D., which has more than 1,300 students with disabilities, said she would probably eliminate jobs and decrease budgets for professional development and assistive technology.

"We are all in a dilemma of how to meet the needs of students that we're required to meet, but not given the funding to do," Ms. Stinnett said.

Although low-income and special-education students will be directly affected by the cuts first, general education would also feel the pinch.

"It's the trickle-down effect," Ms. Pawelek said. If school districts shoulder more special-education and low-income student costs, then "their general education students will suffer along the way, too."

eschneider@texastribune.org

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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