The New Mexico Public Education Department hasn't been living up to its share of a special education funding formula mandated by the federal government, and the consequences could mean a cut in special education funding for New Mexico.
For the past two years, PED hasn't been providing the required amount of funding for special education spelled out under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act. IDEA is a federal program that provides special education support to states as long as they earmark enough money in their own education budgets toward special education programs (all states have accepted IDEA funding).
The federal IDEA threshold for each state is called the "maintenance of effort."
"You have to maintain a certain level of funding for those special ed students or you do not get funding from the US Department of Education for IDEA," state Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo, tells SFR.
The numbers New Mexico has been off by are in dispute. According to Stewart, the PED claims its special ed funding has been $25 million short over the past two years, while the USDOE says that number is closer to $100 million.
Last August, the PED sent a letter to the US Department of Education asking for a waiver from IDEA. The DOE can grant IDEA waivers to states that have experienced an "unforeseen decline in the financial resources." The issue, Stewart says, is that the PED didn't tell any state legislators about the problem. Nor did it apparently tell staffers at the Legislative Education Study Committee or the Legislative Finance Committee, both of which recently found out on their own, according to Stewart and others.
"My first thought was dismay and shock," Stewart, who chairs the House Education Committee, says. "This has been going on and no one knew about it."
The problem likely stems from deep state budget cuts prompted by the Great Recession over the past few years. From 2008 to 2010, New Mexico cut its budget by roughly 20 percent after facing sharp falls in revenue, according to LFC Director David Abbey.
States, Abbey notes, are required to balance budgets no matter how challenging the circumstances. He adds the best thing for New Mexico to do now is make a strong request for a waiver.
"A few [other states] got waivers, it seems," he tells SFR. "So why can't we get one? I'm asking. We're trying to learn and get up to speed."
On Monday, The House Education Committee will address the IDEA problem head on in a meeting at 8am in Room 317 of the Roundhouse.