The National Education Association estimates that if states and local school systems did not replace any of the funds lost through the sequester, nearly 300,000 students receiving special education services would be affected. The union estimated up to 7,800 jobs could be lost as a result of the federal budget cuts.

All told, 6.5 million disabled children from ages 3-21 received services funded by the IDEA in the fall of 2011, the most recent number available.

It is unknown how many states or schools districts will replace some or all of that money from other sources, such as new tax revenues or cuts to other programs. But they may hesitate to replace federal funding even if they have the resources. That’s because by law, states and school districts that raise their funding for special education and then later reduce it, after adjusting for enrollment and other factors, can see their funding from the federal government cut. That requirement, known as maintenance of effort, means that even if the federal government eventually replaces the money cut through the sequester, school districts will be on the hook to spend more than they did before the automatic federal budget cuts.

Because of the maintenance of effort requirement many school districts have worked hard even through several years of state budget cuts to preserve special education funding to avoid risking their federal special education funding.

Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of public policy and advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said that as a result, “Over the course of the recession, the cuts in a school district’s budget have disproportionately been on general education students,” although disabled students are often affected along with everybody else by reductions in services to general education students, such as larger class size.

But in a survey by AASA earlier this year on the impact of the recession on schools, more superintendents indicated that special education spending would decline for the first time in the nearly five years the survey has been conducted. Ellerson said that in previous years, school systems were able to cover the cuts in federal funding, but superintendents indicated this year they can no longer do so because of continuing recessionary pressures and the depth of the sequestration cuts.

Those cuts further exacerbate the federal government’s chronic underfunding of its contribution toward the education of students with disabilities. Under the IDEA, the federal government committed to giving states funding for up to 40 percent of the difference between the cost of educating a disabled student and a general student. The most the federal government has ever given the states is 18.5 percent in 2005 (aside from a one-time infusion of economic stimulus funding in fiscal year 2009), and the figure has been declining since, according to Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of education organizations. Under the sequester, the federal share fell to 14.9 percent, the lowest federal contribution by percent dating to 2001.

Federal funding aside, local school systems are obligated by law to provide children with disabilities with a free appropriate education.

“It doesn’t matter what the feds send down to the locals and the states in federal support, the law requires that states and local school districts identify and serve every student that they deem to be eligible and in need of special education,” said Candace Cortiella, director of The Advocacy Institute. The institute is a nonprofit that provides training for special education advocates and runs the web site IDEA Money Watch, which tracks federal funding for special education.

“There can be no consideration given to how much money there is to spend. That really puts the states and the local districts in quite a precarious situation,” Cortiella said.

What states are doing

The impact of the sequester on special education varies from state to state and even district to district.

(Next page: What Virginia, Florida, and others are doing; estimated special education reductions by state)