Lawmakers aim to identify students with disabilities early

Lawmakers aim to identify students with disabilities early

(Del.) In an effort to improve early intervention of students with disabilities, Delaware lawmakers are seeking to close a gap in school funding that leaves almost 2,500 of the state’s youngest learners without special education resources.

The state currently provides districts with extra money to serve students classified as “intensive” or “complex” across all grades. But children with “basic” special needs–such as those with minor developmental delays or dyslexia–may go undiagnosed until grade 4, when schools qualify to receive extra funding to provide resources to students in this category.

A bill recently introduced in the State General Assembly will fill that early gap in special education funding.

“We know that in kindergarten through 3rd grade students are learning to read, and after that they are reading to learn–early intervention is one of the keys to helping our youngest students succeed,” Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, author of the bill, said in an interview. “We always focus on dropout rates and graduation rates, and this is something we can do early on to give our students the best possible chance for success and in doing so have a greater impact on our dropout and graduation rates.”

Research has found early intervention is not only important in ensuring more students are able to transition back into the traditional classroom, but also in improving their chances of graduating high school, enrolling in college, and gaining employment among other long-term successes.

Between pre-K and third grade, about 41 percent of students are able to transition out of special education when they receive appropriate services, according to a 2015 study by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Only 26 percent of students transition out after the third grade, the report found, and the rest remain in special education the entirety of their schooling.

Williams’ bill would phase in the early services and the associated cost in the state budget over four years. In the 2017-18 school year, the state would spend just over $1.7 million and districts would cover $650,000; and by 2020-21, the state would cover nearly $12.3 million and districts would be paying a share of more than $4.5 million.

The bill also requires that money be used to hire additional staff that will meet the needs of students with disabilities, including special education teachers, school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, reading specialists, educational diagnosticians, counselors, class aides and social workers.

Williams introduced a similar bill last year that, much like her new initiative, faced little opposition. Her last attempt to expand funding stalled because lawmakers were unable to find the money to pay for it. This year, with the state facing a projected $350 million budget gap, the chances of the new version moving forward appears slim once again.

However, Williams said that considering the major increase in spending made by the Legislature in pre-K funding, it would only make sense to continue that investment.

Delaware’s Fiscal Year 2017 Operating Budget includes $9.4 million in new funding to continue projects that support access to high‐quality early learning programs for low‐income children and improve early learning opportunities–a priority of Gov. Jack Markell.

According to Williams, her bill would help fill the need students may have between pre-K and fourth grade, and mitigate long term costs associated with providing special needs resources for those who never transition back into the traditional classroom.

Williams, who has two children who she says were developmentally delayed in their early education careers, notes that while the goal of her bill hits close to home, it is something that will keep many Delaware children from falling behind at the start.

“I know how important early identification and invention is to a student, and I know the earlier they’re identified the better,” Williams said. “It’s better for students and society as a whole to reach out to these students as early as possible - to give them the necessary resources that they need to be successful. When providing resources early on, it will pay greater dividends in the future. It’s a common sense bill that’s very much needed.”