ChildsWork News, Jan. 20, 2012: Preschool Funding is Cut While the Definition of “Special Needs” Expands on the Federal Level
I found two great articles for you all to ponder as we head into the weekend. The first is from another new Education Week blogger, Julie Rasicot. She continues a discussion on how the national budget crisis has affected the earliest learners. Public pre-kindergarten programs are being massively cut at the same time that research is confirming their importance, especially for at-risk, low-income youth. Next, our friend Nirvi Shah has some positive news for the special need community. According to a 2009 expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act, more students are going to qualify for special education services. For parents and teachers desperate for the extra help and attention that so-called boarderline children may need, this is a welcome change. As a letter from the office of Civil Rights explains, “In most cases, application of these rules should quickly shift the inquiry away from the question whether a student has a disability [and thus is protected by the ADA and Section 504], and toward the school district's actions and obligations to ensure equal educational opportunities." Yet, given the grim news in Rasicot’s article about the decreased funds available for universal programs like pre-k, where will the increased funding for increased accommodations come from? In a school system riddled with budget pitfalls, does the ideological and individual gain achieved through an expanded special education program compensate for the cuts that affect all students? State-funded Preschools Feel Effects of Recession By Julie Rasicot writing for Education Week’s Early Years Although my kids attended a private preschool, lots of children depend on state-funded prekindergarten programs to get them ready for elementary school. That's why it was disheartening to learn this week that public prekindergarten programs in some states are becoming the latest victims of the recession. According to a report in USA Today, shrinking budgets have forced some states to stop expanding and, in some cases, cut back on existing programs. And that means that slots aren't available as even more economically stressed families qualify for state-funded programs. Research shows that children from low-income families can greatly benefit from quality prekindergarten programs. Yet these are the kids that are often priced out when school districts cut back and private programs become the only option. The curtailing of expansion and cutbacks come after a decade that saw state funding for prekindergarten more than double nationwide to $5.1 billlion and access increase by about 300,000 kids to more than 1 million, according to Pre-K Now, a 10-year campaign of The Pew Center on the States. About 40 states fund their own programs; some may be combined with the federal Head Start program that provides services to needy kids. Despite this promising growth, funding issues began to affect state-funded programs in the 2009-2010 school year, says the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, which has been tracking state funding for prekindergarten since 2002. During that school year, total state funding for prekindergarten decreased by nearly $30 million, marking the first time that spending has decreased from the previous year since the NIEER began tracking the numbers. And while enrollment in state-funded preschool programs increased by nearly 27,000 that school year to about 1.3 million kids, those figures only translate into about 27 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds attending, the NIEER says. Add in enrollment in Head Start and those figures increase to just 40 percent for 4-year-olds and 14 percent for 3-year-olds. The news is not all bad: the federal government this month gave a boost to nine states, which will split $500 million in Early Learning Challenge grants to improve the quality of early-childhood education for low-income kids. But for those children who can least afford to miss out on the learning advantages provided by quality preschool programs, the news about state-funded preschools is daunting. Let's hope the new year brings better economics times that help states get back on the expansion track. Districts Must Expand Definition, Services to Students with Disabilities By Nirvi Shah, writing for Education Week’s On Special Education A new letter from the Office for Civil Rights at the federal education department details how school districts should act on some changes to federal law regarding people with disabilities. The way I'm reading it, the letter expands the range of students to whom school districts' may have to provide special education services and accommodations, including some who in the past may have been found not to need those services. The letter is intended to clarify school districts' obligations following amendments made to the Americans with Disabilities Act that took effect in 2009. Those amendments say school districts should define disability very broadly, writes Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights, in a set of questions and answers that accompany the letter. "Students who, in the past, may not have been determined to have a disability under Section 504 [of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973] and Title II [of the Americans with Disabilities Act] may now in fact be found to have a disability under those laws," the guidance says. "A student whom a school district did not believe had a disability, and therefore did not receive...special education or related services before passage of the Amendments Act, must now be considered under these new legal standards. The school district would have to evaluate the student, as described in the Section 504 regulation, to determine if he or she has a disability and, if so, the district would have to determine whether, because of the disability, the student needs special education or related services." It goes on: "Specifically, Congress directed that the definition of disability shall be construed broadly and that the determination of whether an individual has a disability should not demand extensive analysis. In most cases, application of these rules should quickly shift the inquiry away from the question whether a student has a disability [and thus is protected by the ADA and Section 504], and toward the school district's actions and obligations to ensure equal educational opportunities." That last part may raise the ire of school districts who increasingly have been griping about their special education costs rising. In recent years, states have said they are having trouble meeting their financial obligation to special education, too. Ms. Ali's guidance also says districts should revise their policies and procedures regarding who should get special education services and what those services are if their current policies and procedures don't incorporate the amendments to the ADA. "As noted above, the definition of disability is to be interpreted broadly, so determining whether one has a disability should not demand extensive analysis." There is a lot more to this guidance. For instance, the guidance points out that a student has a disability under Section 504 and Title II if a major life activity is substantially limited by his or her impairment—but those impairments aren't limited to ones involving learning. An example: "A student with ulcerative colitis is substantially limited in the operation of a major bodily function, the digestive system. These students would have to be evaluated, as described in the Section 504 regulation, to determine whether they need special education or related services." For students found not to need special education or related services, Ms. Ali's guidance goes on to say that the district must still consider whether a student is entitled to a reasonable modification of policies, practices, or procedures. An example: A student who has a physical disability based on a lung condition that substantially limits walking and mobility should be allowed to use the faculty elevator because the student needs assistance in traveling between classes, even though the school rule generally prohibits student use of the elevator. Laura Kaloi, public policy director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, praised the new guidance—at least in general. "OCR has issued much-needed guidance to help schools implement the provisions of the ADA Amendments Act and how schools identify and serve individuals with disabilities," she said. But the guidance doesn't go far enough, she said. The OCR stopped short of clarifying an issue that has arisen since the Education Department's office of special education issued regulations in 2007 regarding revocation of parental consent for services under the IDEA. She said some states have taken the position that an OCR letter from 1996 can be used to avoid an examination of potential 504 eligibility if a parent has revoked consent for services under IDEA. "This is an incorrect use of the letter and OCR should make that clear." Her organization provides its own guidance on the ADA Amendments and Section 504.