COLUMBIA — The U.S. Education Department denied South Carolina’s request to further appeal a $36 million penalty for not spending enough on special education during the economic downturn, meaning the cut could continue indefinitely.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan dismissed the case in a six-page order sent to state officials.
South Carolina schools chief Mick Zais said Monday he is left with no choice but to pursue solutions through the courts and Congress. “This entire process has been symbolic of Washington-style red tape.”
The cut in federal money is a punishment for the state not spending enough on students with disabilities in the 2009-10 year. It reflects what’s left of an initial penalty of $111 million issued last June, after other amounts were forgiven. The $36 million partial penalty was set to start last October, but the federal agency delayed the punishment by a year.
Zais, a Republican who took the agency’s helm in January 2011, appealed the partial penalty in August and asked for a hearing. He also asked for another one-year delay pending a decision. Federal officials denied that request in April, noting it gave the delay so the state could prepare for the loss.
That prompted Zais to ask senators to add $36 million to the 2012-13 budget for special education to avoid additional penalties. The Senate’s spending plan includes that money.
In his appeal, Zais argued that the entire penalty be waived, or at least be a one-time cut. In his order, Duncan backs up the decisions of lower-level staff and said he fully considered the state’s position that it’s entitled to a hearing.
The state spends $410 million on South Carolina’s nearly 100,000 special needs students.
The cut comes from the $183 million the state would otherwise receive from the government for students with disabilities.
Federal law bars states from spending less money on special education from one year to the next.