I started my education career as an early childhood special educator. In my first days and weeks on the job, I learned an astounding amount. These lessons ranged from the cliché, but truly essential, “patience is a (very helpful) virtue” to the less cliché, but arguably no less essential, “if you plan an activity that uses glitter, expect to find it on everything you own for the next six-to-nine months.” Among these guiding mantras for navigating daily classroom life, I also learned that when it comes to providing free appropriate public education (FAPE) for children with disabilities, money is inextricably, often frustratingly, linked.
Funding for early childhood special education is complex (see the graphic below)—tied to federal, state, and local funding sources. Federal law requires local education agencies (LEAs) to provide free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), but LEAs are largely responsible for picking up the tab. Under Part B of IDEA, Congress is authorized to provide up to 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditure for children with special needs, but, in most states, federal funds account for an average of only 16 percent of estimated costs, according to some estimates.
What this funding gap can mean on the day-to-day level is a tension between the provision of legally-mandated services and the money necessary to support them. Full-time paraprofessionals, specialized resources, and qualified special educators (already hard to come by) all require funding for support. Underfunded special education programs often face perverse incentives that can lead to decisions far from the best interest of students. Lack of funding to support the hiring of a paraprofessional for a student with severe needs, for instance, can lead to incentives to delay a formal evaluation of the child, keep the child in a restrictive classroom environment, or worse—lead well-meaning but cash-strapped administrators to find a reason to move the student to a new educational institution entirely.
In 2013, sequestration cut $2 billion from the Department of Education’s budget, eliminating $600 million from federal special education funding and leading to budget shortages in special education programs around the country. Despite this recent shortfall, funding for early childhood special education could be on the rise next year. Earlier this month, President Obama released his FY 2017 budget, which included a number of funding updates to preschool special education funding. While special education funding for school-aged children (K-12) would stay the same under the proposed federal budget, funding for children with special needs ages birth through five would see an increase in several areas.
Under IDEA Part B Section 619, preschool grants supporting children with disabilities ages three through five would see a $35 million funding increase in the new budget. And, under IDEA Part C, special education grants for infants (ages birth through two) and families would be allocated an additional $45 million over last year’s spending levels. Within this $45 million, $15 million is reserved for the Department of Education to provide grants supporting model programs for early screening, referrals, and early intervention services.
This last element—screenings—is very important as early care and education programs play a crucial role in the early identification of children with exceptionalities, enabling schools to support the individualized needs of children from their first year. (Developmental screenings were used as an indicator of states with strong birth-through-3rd grade policies in New America’s recent report, From Crawling to Walking.)
Additionally important, early education can help reduce special education costs later in a child’s educational career. A study from Duke University in North Carolina last year found that a child’s attendance in North Carolina’s “Smart Start” or “More at Four” programs reduces the likelihood that a child will need special education in third grade by 39 percent. There are financial as well as educational benefits to this reduction. The lead author of the Duke report, Clara Muschkin, noted that special education nationwide costs almost twice as much on average than general education. A reduction in the number of students with special needs, therefore, can have long-term financial benefits for states and school districts.
Also worth noting in the Duke study is that “More at Four,” specifically targets low-income or otherwise disadvantaged four-year-olds. Children from low-income families are least likely to have access to high-quality pre-K, but are also more likely than higher-income peers to be classified as having special needs during their educational career. It makes sense, therefore, that Muschkin and her team found a reduction by 32 percent in special education placements for graduates of the “More at Four” program versus a 10 percent reduction for the comparison program, “Smart Start,” which did not strategically target students from low-income families.
Given these results, it is also good news that in addition to the previously mentioned budget increases in the proposed FY 2017 budget, Obama’s latest proposal once again puts $75 million toward a new federal-state partnership designed to provide all low- and moderate-income four-year-old children with high-quality pre-K. This Preschool for All initiative, partnering with all 50 states, would allocate funds to states based on the number of children in each state from low- and moderate-income families.
According to the Department of Education, the number of children served under IDEA has increased under both Part C (children birth through age two) and Part B Section 619 (children ages three through five) since 2004. As the department’s most recent annual report notes, 6 percent of the population of U.S. children ages three through five receives specialized education services annually under IDEA, along with 2.8 percent of children ages birth through two. As these population percentages have continued to increase, appropriate funding to support the needs of children in school settings is essential and a solid investment for school districts more broadly. Here’s hoping the President’s increased budget allocations for early childhood special education become a reality. "