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Sequester Cuts Could Hit Special Ed, Poor Students

The automatic federal spending cuts known as the sequester could hit special education and programs for low-income students hardest. And state lawmakers are unlikely to come up with cash to fill the federal hole.

Stacy Ford taking her daughter, Aurora, who is 11 years old and has Down Syndrome, to school on Tuesday, March 19, 2013.

Aurora Ramirez-Ford, a fifth-grader with Down syndrome, needs 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 may 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 get 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 poor 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 TEA is predicting a range of 5 to 10 percent reductions in federal financing, which makes up 11.9 percent of its overall budget. The TEA will allocate financing for each district by July 1, said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the agency. 

State legislators are not expected to ride to the financial rescue. Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who chairs 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 federal cuts.  

“Sequestration is painful,” Creighton said. “I believe all states are in this position.”  

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 Dr. Carl Montoya, superintendent of the 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 ISD, just south of San Antonio, said she might be forced to lay off five paraprofessional special ed aides who serve the district’s nearly 300 special-needs students. She also expects class sizes to grow.

Montoya said he would probably downsize staff and programming. Robbie Stinnett, special education director for Duncanville ISD, 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,” Stinnett said. “It’s a double-whammy.”

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

“It’s the trickle-down effect,” 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. 

But all administrators insist they will do what is best for their students first.

“We don’t want to hurt our students,” Montoya said. “We want to keep [the money] in the classroom.” 

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