The federal economic-stimulus package’s $12.2 billion in funding for special education has been cheered as a way to offer financial breathing room for cash-strapped states.
But for the part of the federal special education program that provides programs for the youngest children, the stimulus gave more than breathing room: It provided a chance for survival.
The better-known Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides for services for students ages 3 to 21. Most students are covered under that part of the law, and it receives by far the largest amount of federal dollars allotted to special education. Part B is also an entitlement program, available to all eligible students by law.
Part C of the IDEA by contrast, is optional. It provides money to states so they can provide coordinated services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays and disabilities and their families.
Without the money provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, early-childhood advocates say some states were seriously considering withdrawing from the Part C program altogether, despite an abundance of research that stresses the importance of early intervention for children with disabilities and delays.
“There was serious concern that without ARRA money, some states would not have been able to participate in Part C in 2009-10,” said Susan Maude, the president of the division for early childhood of the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children.
“These critical ARRA funds have allowed some states to postpone, for at least a year, the difficult decision about whether the state can afford to continue to participate in this voluntary program,” Ms. Maude said.
But even with the lifeline, concerns remain. The U.S. Department of Education has cautioned that stimulus money “should be invested in ways that do not result in unsustainable continuing commitments after the funding expires.” But with underfunding at the early-childhood level so acute, states may take the money and pour it back into services for children.
“We continue to identify more kids who are in need of services,” said Julie Curry, the president of the IDEA Infant and Toddler Coordinators Association, a coalition of Part C early-intervention programs. “The recovery funds were a very well-timed influx of money.”
But paying for services means early-intervention providers may be limited in how much stimulus money they’ll have left for professional development, technology, and other quality measures recommended by the Education Department, some advocates believe.
“We’ve built a structure in which we haven’t paid enough attention to the infrastructure supports,” said Mary Beth Bruder, the director of the Center for Excellence in Disabilities at the University of Connecticut in Farmington, which houses a research branch that deals specifically with personnel preparation in early-childhood programs.
Unless states make the effort, the stimulus dollars “are a quick fix, without taking a step back and strategically planning,” Ms. Bruder said.
The IDEA provides three funding sources for young children with disabilities. Section 611 of the IDEA Part B covers children ages 3-21, and direct grants to states made under this part of the law are the largest share of special education stimulus dollars, at $11.3 billion over two years. About 6.7 million children are served in the program.
Section 619 of the IDEA Part B applies specifically to children with disabilities ages 3-5. About 739,000 children are served through Section 619, and, like the special education program for older students, the money flows directly to school districts to help pay for preschool programs.
Early-childhood advocates say Section 619 money is essential because it must be spent only on preschool for children with disabilities, and there is no federal requirement that state grant funds under the larger Section 611 program be used on preschool. The Section 619 program received $380.7 million in fiscal 2009, a drop from a high of about $390 million in 2001. The economic-stimulus plan gives $400 million over two years to the program.
Part C of the IDEA provides money for services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays and their families, and has a different funding mechanism than the grants to states made under Sections 611 and 619. The federal money flows to state-designated “lead agencies” that manage the program.
In 10 states, those lead agencies are the state education departments, but in the other states, the money goes to departments of health or other state social-service organizations.
The stimulus will provide $500 million over two years to Part C programs, which received $439.4 million in fiscal 2009. Though that represents a slight increase over the previous fiscal year’s funding of $435 million, Part C program dollars have also dropped overall, from a high of $444 million in 2004.
Though Part C money can pay for direct services to children and their families, service coordination among many agencies is a large part of the program’s mandate. Infants and toddlers and their families are given individualized family-service plans, which are comparable to the individualized education programs that are given to older students receiving special education services.
Need for Personnel
States have some discretion in deciding which children will be eligible for the Part C program and in how much their parents might be required to pay for those services. The Council for Exceptional Children’s division for early childhood says states have been narrowing their eligibility criteria for children participating in Part C programs, and most states now require families to share part of the costs.
Even with tougher eligibility requirements, the number of infants and toddlers served in Part C is growing, from 187,899 in 1999 to about 355,000 now.
Ms. Bruder, who has conducted several studies on personnel preparation in this area, says the increasing numbers of children in the programs makes the need for qualified personnel urgent. In 2007, her center surveyed 1,819 Part C and Section 619 providers in 44 states, and 80 percent said their professional education programs did not provide them with the training they needed to work with students with disabilities. Only 50 percent said they were in states that required training above and beyond their professional credentialing requirements.
“Personnel needs are tremendous, as are service-coordinator needs,” Ms. Bruder said. “We’re not training enough, and we’re not training well, in the preservice arena.”
Ms. Maude said early-childhood programs have been working hard to provide professional development and to implement new outcome requirements that were a part of the reauthorization of the IDEA in 2004. As with the Part B program, agencies that receive Part C funding must monitor and report to the federal Education Department on several “indicator areas,” such as the number of children who demonstrate improved “positive social-emotional skills” and the percentage of families who know their rights and “accurately report their children’s needs.”
“States have been required to implement these accountability systems over the past years, yet were given no additional resources, personnel or fiscal, to meet these federal mandates,” Ms. Maude said. “The bottom line is that these dollars will greatly support young children with or at risk for disabilities and their families, and [the division for early childhood] is grateful.”
Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week