Disability advocates are upset that some Wisconsin school districts want to be able to cut special education spending without losing losing federal funds.

Disability Rights Wisconsin said they just recently learned of a May letter to Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisc., asking for changes to the portion of the federal law requiring districts to keep spending on students with disabilities level from year to year. The clause is intended to buffer special education from the budget cycle and political whims.

“While we acknowledge difficult financial times over the past three years which have made state and local education budgeting decisions particularly tenuous, our state legislature has made deliberate choices in education funding priorities that have put pressure on [districts] to reduce school funding,” the group wrote in a letter Thursday. “This should not result in decreased funding at the local level for the provision of a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities.”

Generally, school districts can only cut special education spending if there’s an actual decrease in expenses—say, if an experienced, highly paid special education teacher retires or a high-needs student leaves a district. Cutting the special education budget for almost any other reason means a district is running the risk of losing its share of federal funds. Districts have to restore spending to the amount before the cuts to get back in the good graces of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In June, the federal Department of Education gave districts a little wiggle room. A district “is not obligated to expend at least the amount expended in the last fiscal year for which it met the maintenance-of-effort requirement. In other words, each year’s [district] maintenance-of-effort obligation is based on the actual amount expended in the immediate prior fiscal year,” wrote Melody Musgrove, the director of the office of special education programs.

But Wisconsin school districts, noting the challenging economic times, asked for penalties to be waived for another reason: if a school district finds a more efficient way to manage its special education budget. The request came with a pledge.

“This change will not reduce the services being provided to children with disabilities and could allow for enhanced educational opportunities for every child,” the districts wrote. Collectively, the 45 districts in southeast Wisconsin represent 250,000 students.

But Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, said his organization has already heard from parents and others who say services for their children have been reduced. If a student worked with an aide last school year for example, his or her new education plan erases the need for an aide. In other cases, students are being placed in less-inclusive environments because a school doesn’t have all the staff it needs to make a more-inclusive environment work.

He said he understands that school districts are cash-strapped, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to continue upholding the law.

“When political decisions are made like the state of Wisconsin did, it has consequences,” Mr. Spitzer-Resnick said. “You’re still stuck with IDEA and maintenance of effort.”

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