Editor's note: This is the final story in a series on special education programs.
Congress must pass a fiscal plan by January or across-the-board spending cuts would rattle domestic programs including a $900 million cut for special education.
The bulk of the special education cut would be in state grants for the education of school-age children with disabilities. The so-called fiscal cliff's effect on special education in Pennsylvania would result in a $33 million drop, the state Department of Education estimates.
School districts, which have had difficulty covering costs with their piece of the state's $1 billion program for special education for the past three years, would feel the effects of the cliff in the 2013-14 school year.
Much of the responsibility for funding special education lies with Congress, U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-5th District, said.
"This would cut funding to something already underfunded by the federal government at this point," Thompson said of the potential cut to special education.
"I've served on a school board for six years. I'm very familiar with the special education mandates that come down from the federal government. It's basically an unfunded mandate," he said.
The cost of providing transportation, specialized equipment and staff for special education students increases, Williamsburg Community School District Superintendent Linda Smith said.
"For the last three years, special education has received level funding from the state, which is a major concern for budgeting purposes," Smith said.
In addition to federal cuts directly to special education, Title I funding could be reduced by about $43 million in the state because of the automatic cuts.
At Williamsburg where 22 percent of the student population is enrolled in special education, Title I programs help students in kindergarten through second grade who have difficulties with developmentally appropriate skills and also reading skills, Smith said.
If progress is not made, a special education evaluation might be necessary.
"The right thing to do is to keep this from happening," Thompson said.