Special Education

Federal Leadership Conference Provides a Little Song-and-Dance

By Christina A. Samuels — August 27, 2008 2 min read
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I always know when I’m at a conference of teachers and former teachers. No matter what, there always seems to be a time when a speaker commands the audience to get up for a little game or musical interlude. Old classroom habits die hard.

So at today’s Office of Special Education Programs Leadership Conference in Baltimore, even though the special education administrators in attendance had likely long since left the classroom, I wasn’t surprised that a presentation on a reading program in North Carolina ended with the audience being asked to sing...about reading.

But that was just one light moment in a conference that delved into some crunchy issues, including guidance to states on what the U.S. Department of Education calls “coordinated early intervening services.” The 2004 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Act allow--and sometimes require--districts to use up to 15 percent of their federal special education dollars to provide early intervention services for students who aren’t identified as needing special education.

The thinking is that the early services would reduce referrals to special education by providing good instruction for students early on. It’s the same philosophical underpinning of the push toward response to intervention.

Where the requirement to spend the money comes in is if a state has “significant disproportionality” in some special education categories. In plain English, the money is supposed to be used to make sure certain ethnic subgroups aren’t referred to special education more than their representation in the student body would seem to merit.

For instance, if African-Americans are 14 percent of a district’s student body, but 20 percent of its special education population, disproportionality could be a problem. The same problem could exist if minorities are overrepresented in a particular special education category.

The important part to remember is that all of this work is something that is to be done at the general education level. To repeat, these early intervening services are to be provided to students who are not in special education, but who need “additional academic and behavior supports.”

Much like RTI, coordinated early intervening services requires a mental shift on the part of general educators. Children with unspecified problems can’t be handed off to a special educator to “fix.”

Logistically, it’s also a challenge for districts to collect the data that proves they have a problem with disproportionality, and this data must be collected yearly. Also, the money has to be used for something that will actually address the disproportionality. The money can’t be used, for example, to build a new school.

The money must also supplement, and not supplant, other funding that a district may receive.

The Education Department has recently released some guidance (pdf) on the topic. My question to readers: States complain frequently that they aren’t getting enough money for special education, a complaint that has been heard at pretty high levels. Is setting aside 15 percent of federal funds specifically for NON-special education students a sound use of limited dollars? The Education Department says yes; what do you think?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.