IDEA Stimulus Funds Create Options for LEAs; Early Intervention Services, Technology Top List (2009-09-10)
by Travis Hicks, Thompson.com
The extra $11.3 billion in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) stimulus dollars will provide local districts with unprecedented opportunities to improve instructional quality and integrate new technologies, say school leaders.
Not only does the near doubling of IDEA funding in the 2009-10 school year offer additional flexibility in offering coordinated early intervening services (CEIS) and meeting "maintenance-of-effort" requirements, but the new resources can help districts integrate research-based strategies and break down educational silos.
At a July forum on Capital Hill, Judy Wurtzel, the U.S. Department of Education's (ED's) assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, called the IDEA stimulus money an "unheard-of opportunity" in building long-term capacity.
At the same time, however, the one-time nature of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding and the intricacies of the law's civil rights' mandates require that district leaders tread carefully in spending the new money. In addition, the slow distribution of stimulus funding by the states to local education agencies (LEAs) and some confusion about basic requirements such as reporting continue to pose challenges.
Although ED released IDEA stimulus guidance in April, Wurtzel admitted it was "very general." Over the next couple of months, ED intends to release more detailed guidance on uses of the new funding that will stress CEIS and push for linkages with Title I that create cross-program efforts that "really get at the early ages around literacy," she said.
IDEA's CEIS provision enables districts to use up to 15 percent of their total Part B grant to fund educational and behavioral evaluations and supports -- typically through a model referred to as "Response to Intervention" -- as well as professional development in scientifically based academic and behavioral interventions. The money also can augment activities authorized under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), provided the funding supplements, and not supplants, NCLB funding.
CEIS funds target students who currently are not identified as needing special education services, but need additional academic and behavioral supports to excel in the general education environment. Students officially designated as in need of special education may not receive CEIS services, except for problems not grounded in the disability that led to their designation as in need of special education.
Specifically, ED's ARRA guidance suggests that districts may use CEIS dollars to provide behavioral interventions to nondisabled students who have exhibited disciplinary difficulties. Further, the document says the funding could be used to help reading and math specialists assist nondisabled students who haven't reached grade-level proficiency in those areas, or fund tutoring for nondisabled students struggling on state tests.
CEIS professional development activities typically involve all personnel charged with providing additional academic and behavioral supports to general education students. Personnel working solely with students with disabilities or students who don't need additional support may participate as long as their participation does not boost the cost of the professional development or decrease its effectiveness.
Chance for New Technology
Technology is frequently cited as another area in which the extra ARRA money can have a impact without the need to hire personnel who cannot be sustained once the ARRA funds run out.
Candace Cortellia, the executive director of the Virginia-based Advocacy Institute, identified technology as a "significant need," including the purchases of hardware and software as well as training for teachers, assistive technology professionals, students and parents. "Some of these expenditures can be quite costly, so the ARRA funds provide a perfect opportunity to really ratchet up technology," she explained in an e-mail.
The list of potential technology purchases is almost endless. The guidance recommends the use of IDEA stimulus dollars for "state-of-the art assistive technology devices and ... training in their use to enhance access to the general curriculum for students with disabilities." Districts also may want to explore data-collection systems that track individual student data as a means of differentiating instruction.
Wurtzel suggested that districts could create systems that placed standards-based individualized education programs (IEPs) online. "Using technology to increase efficiency," she said was the benefit. "A short-term investment for a long-term gain."
Cortellia and Patty Guard, ED's deputy director of special education, also emphasized that many IDEA stimulus expenditures have the potential to benefit all students, whether through dropout-prevention programs or Title I schoolwide programs.
In Title I schoolwide programs, schools are allowed to blend all of their state, local and federal funds into a single pot. The Title I law says that schoolwide programs do not have to maintain separate accounting records showing which funds support which activities, meaning that the funding can go toward programs for all students, provided the civil rights mandates are met for disabled and limited English proficient (LEP) students.
Guard admitted that using ARRA IDEA funds in a schoolwide scenario was "complicated" because of the various requirements associated with each federal funding stream, but said "there are ways to use those funds that are consistent with the program requirements and still in a coordinated way to improve outcomes for all students."
Local District Perspectives
School leaders at the congressional forum, which was jointly sponsored by the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation and the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, offered specifics related to their districts' plans for spending ARRA IDEA money.
In assessing the best course of action with the stimulus funding, Judith Higgins Moening, the executive special education director for the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, noted that her district convened a task force that included staff from the Title I, English language learners (ELLs), instructional technology and special education departments. The task force conducted a district-wide needs assessment that was completed by staff and parents at all of the district's schools.
North East ISD identified a number of strategies to meet the district's needs, including:
* Using professional development in research-based instructional strategies, coteaching, Direct Instruction, positive behavioral supports (PBS), intervention methods and technology;
* Supporting inclusive instruction;
* Using CEIS dollars for tutoring, intervention specialists and materials in RTI programs;
* Placing PBS-trained teams in each school with PBS training to be held annually;
* Fostering collaboration between central office staff and school administrators to monitor school-level data and close the achievement gap; and
* Collaborating across district-level departments of special education, curriculum development, ELLs and educational technology through regular meetings, presentations to principals and joint data review.
"We have already submitted our application to the state," Higgins said, "and we are ready to start spending money as soon as Texas is ready to give it to us."
Claire Crane, the principal of Robert L. Ford NASA Explorer Elementary School in Lynn, Mass., advocated the use of IDEA stimulus funding for thoughtful and wellplanned approaches to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) -- an approach to educational planning and implementation that considers all learners from the outset, including special education, LEP and gifted students.
"By 'thoughtful and well planned,' I'm referring to approaches that are designed from the outset to meet the needs of diverse learners and the teachers who teach them," she said.
To this extent, Crane specifically urged LEAs to consider applying UDL principles in Title I schoolwide programs and acquiring assistive technologies that can support learning for all students in the least restrictive environment. Any effort to apply UDL principles should be accompanied by professional development related to UDL, particularly as it relates to the implementation of an inclusive curriculum.
While the tendency might be to shrug off the challenges tied to the stimulus package's extra IDEA funding, they are plenty and should be considered in spending decisions.
ED has warned districts against funding projects or programs that it would be forced terminate after the stimulus funding ends in two years. For example, districts seeking to avoid difficulties related to the so-called "funding cliff" should avoid boosting the levels of services outlined in a child's IEP. Since school districts already are required to provide the services necessary to ensure a "free, appropriate public education," or FAPE, it is hard to add ARRA services and then rescind them a year or two later without courting a lawsuit.
Although little IDEA money has been distributed yet by the states, districts must plan to vigilantly track and report on all expenditures. All ARRA programs must be tracked separately from the traditional appropriations, meaning that they have to be coded separately as well. The Office of Management and Budget has released specific details on reporting requirements.
Finally, Cortellia pointed out that the $11.3 billion in additional IDEA money really is not a lot when it's broken down per student. Over the course of the two-year life of the funding, districts will receive only about $433 per student with disability per year.
"It will be a challenge for a lot of districts to show us interesting and good results with that amount of money," she said.
Potential Investments With ARRA IDEA Funds
During a July 13 panel discussion in Washington, D.C., Judith Higgins Moening, the executive director of special education for the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, offered suggestions for areas that school leaders could target with the $11.3 billion in special education money they will receive under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, including:
* Professional Development -- Professional development should consist of research-based initiatives that are job-embedded with ongoing follow-up activities.
* Technology -- Technology can be used to differentiate learning and provide access to the curriculum. In addition, it should be tied to professional development.
* Data-Management Systems -- These systems can be used to track student achievement and make decisions regarding interventions.
* Response to Intervention -- The 15 percent of the total grant that can be set aside for coordinated early intervening services can pay for RTI. Funding may be used to purchase classroom materials and other resources, software, and trained interventionists.
* Positive Behavior Supports -- These interventions target students struggling with emotional and disciplinary issues at school.
* Contract Facilitators, Trainers and/or Support Staff -- These individuals can provide follow-up in classrooms with teachers to support implementation of new teaching behaviors
For Further Information
* Access ED's ARRA IDEA guidance at www.ed.gov/policy/gen/leg/recovery/guidance/idea-b.pdf.
* Learn more about universal design for learning at www.udl4allstudents.com.