Montgomery County’s budget slashes cannot yield Special Education cuts
By: Kristen Kelley
Montgomery County is facing yet another set of budget cuts that are feared to have a disappointing effect on school funding. Despite increased student enrollment in Montgomery County Schools, the Council approved another $24 million in budget cuts, notwithstanding the $137 million already cut earlier this year. The pressure is not simply on the Board of Education to ensure the minimal impact of the budget cuts on performance within the schools generally; the pressure expands to abide by the law that explicitly establishes that special educational programs shall not be detrimentally affected in spite of county-wide budget cuts.
An examination of the text, purpose and overall ideology of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) manifests a congressional message that special education services, specifically the implementation of adequate Individual Education Plans (IEPs), are required regardless of budgetary restrictions. According to the statute, states may not utilize means of funding in which monetary distributions “will result in the failure to provide a child with a disability a free appropriate public education according to the unique needs of the child as described in the child’s IEP.” 20 U.S.C. 1412 (a)(5)(B)(i). The statute does not provide any exception; budgetary constraints imposed on state governments do not excuse the guarantee of a free public education to any qualified child. In fact, the statute says that if the state is unable to comply with a proper “funding mechanism” that ensures such an education the state must give the Secretary of State “an assurance that the State will revise the funding mechanism as soon as feasible to ensure that such mechanism does not result in such placements.” 20 U.S.C. 1412 (a)(5)(B)(ii).
In addition to the language of the IDEA, the well-established purpose and intention of the statute’s enactment illustrates the extent to which budget obstacles are no excuse for executing sufficient and strong IEPs for disabled children. Although the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has said that the act confers on the states the responsibility of providing special education services that are designed to provide some educational benefit for the child (i.e. an arguably low standard), SCOTUS also stated that “[t]he Act requires participating states to educate handicapped children whenever possible.” Bd. of Educ. of the Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 192, 202 (1982). Regardless of the unfortunate financial constraints Montgomery County faces, “instruction and services must be provided at public expense, must meet the State’s educational standards, must approximate the grade levels used in the State’s regular education, and must comport with the child’s IEP.” Id. at 203 (emphasis added). Such demands are non-negotiable and insensitive to budget cuts.
Not only is cost not a consideration in providing IEPs within the statute, but SCOTUS has stated that the lack of sufficient state funding to offer services and adequate IEPs to a qualified child is not a basis for their denial. See generally, Cedar Rapids Comm’y Sch. Dist. v. Garret F., 526, U.S. 66 (1999). In Cedar Rapids, the school district addressed concerns surrounding “the financial burden that it must bear to provide the services that [the student] needs to stay in school.” Id. at 76. The school district attempted to argue that costs of medical services to the child should be a factor in approval of the financing. Id. at 75. However, SCOTUS rejected the argument, stating that such a consideration remained unsupported under the IDEA and the case law interpreting it. Id. As the Court notes, the argument for “a kind of undue-burden exemption primarily based on the cost of the requested services,” though legitimate in its concerns, is not warranted under existing law. Id. at 77. Besides the blatant rejection of costs of services as an excuse for failure to provide adequate services, SCOTUS identified that the purpose of the IDEA would be compromised if cost was integrated as a consideration of whether services may be rendered. Id.
Both the language as stated in the IDEA and as interpreted by SCOTUS manifests support in the notion that special education services are guaranteed; they are not merely based on whether the state can financially afford to provide them. Montgomery County cannot refuse services to special education, especially IEPs, for the reason that it is experiencing budget cuts; cost is not a defense.
Kristen Kelly is a rising third year law student at Catholic University and a summer law clerk at HooverLaw.
This post appeared in June’s HooverLaw E-Newsletter. To sign-up for our monthly newsletter e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.