Federal Funding of Preschool for Children With Disabilities Is Plummeting

Surprise, Arizona—Lindsey Eakin’s son Corbin was only six months old when she started to suspect something was wrong. Corbin, her third child, wasn’t babbling or cooing like his two older siblings had at his age and he was experiencing chronic, painful ear infections. His pediatrician at the time wasn’t concerned. But by the time he turned 1, Corbin wasn’t meeting developmental milestones in speech and Eakins was frustrated that nobody seemed to have answers for her.

“I didn’t know where to go with him,” she said. “I knew he wasn’t getting the help he needed.”

For her son’s 12-month appointment, Eakins took Corbin to a different pediatrician, who immediately agreed with her concerns. The doctor thought the ear infections could be affecting Corbin’s hearing. Tubes were placed in Corbin’s ears to help drain fluid and improve his hearing, but Corbin’s speech did not improve. Just before his third birthday, he was tested for speech delays and diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech, a speech disorder that can lead to a delayed or limited ability to make sounds or form words.

Eakins soon learned that Corbin qualified for speech therapy and also for a preschool program offered through her local school district, Dysart Unified, about 20 miles northwest of Phoenix. The federally funded program, often called developmental preschool, serves young children ages 3 to 5 with disabilities. The goal of the program is to give kids with disabilities the services they need and a head start in school.

Dysart Unified’s preschool program for students with disabilities, which is offered at each of its elementary schools and staffed with teams of teachers, therapists and paraprofessionals, has become a model for Arizona. It’s the kind of inclusive, widespread program that experts say is ideal for young children with disabilities and can lead to impressive outcomes. Some children do so well in these programs they no longer need special education services by the time they enter school.

Corbin attended Dysart’s preschool five days a week for two-and-a-half hours a day. It wasn’t long before his speech skyrocketed.

“It’s had a major impact,” his mother said. “He went from not talking to full blown sentences.”

But comprehensive programs like the one in Dysart are a rarity, especially in a state where public pre-K is not yet widely available for all students, let alone children with disabilities. In 2016, Arizona offered public preschool to only 4 percent of its 4-year-olds and 2 percent of 3-year-olds. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), every state in the country is required to offer, at a minimum, services like speech or occupational therapy for preschool students with disabilities, beginning at age 3. But the local school districts that must provide the programs are receiving fewer federal dollars: Federal funding to support these efforts has been declining steadily for decades.

The government’s overall appropriation of funds for special education preschool programs has varied by year, but generally decreased between 2002 and 2015, from $390 million to $353 million, before getting a slight bump to about $368 million in 2016 and 2017. At the same time, the number of children served by the programs more than doubled from the early 1990s to 2017, when 753,000 children ages 3 to 5 were served.

The growth in enrollment without adequate federal funding means per pupil spending has decreased sharply, by 40 percent per child from 1994 to 2014. Without funds, states may struggle to offer a robust special education preschool program and services, which means kids who could greatly benefit from having a head start in school are missing out and losing valuable time to catch up with their peers.

Experts say this delay can impact kids when they finally do enter school. “We know ‘wait and see’ doesn’t work,” said Amanda Morin, an expert at Understood, a nonprofit that gives parents resources and information about learning and attention issues. “So kids who are not getting services at younger ages will most likely need services when they get into school.”

The lack of adequate federal funding also means these federally required special education programs and services must often be subsidized by state funds and local sources, and thus vary widely by state and district. In Indiana, for example, preschool funding for children with disabilities has not changed in almost 30 years.

While some states and districts lean more toward offering piecemeal services for kids, such as therapy at home or at school, others have rearranged funding to invest in brick-and-mortar preschool classrooms that give kids with disabilities the opportunity to attend a pre-K program while also getting services catered to their needs.

There is also wide variability within pre-K programs. Some districts offer just one special education preschool classroom for the entire district, while others offer several. Some are inclusive and enroll students without disabilities as well, while others only serve children with disabilities.

Nicol Russell, deputy associate superintendent for early childhood at the Arizona Department of Education, said the lack of funding hamstrings many districts that recognize the long-term benefits of developmental preschool and want to expand their programs. “We believe [districts] really want to offer children the best setting possible,” Russell said. “Many of them, because of the level of funding, just don’t know how to make that happen. It is costly to do quality in any situation when it comes to early childhood, but especially when it comes to special education services.”

Dysart’s developmental preschool program is funded by its maintenance and operation budget, which is cobbled together from state per-pupil allocations for each child enrolled in the district and local taxpayer dollars. The maintenance and operation funds mostly cover the salaries for preschool teachers in the program. The district covers the preschools’ other costs by pulling from the budget for all special education programs and by charging tuition for children without disabilities who attend the preschool program.

Marydel Speidell, the district’s director of finance, said the district has not done anything drastic to fund its special education preschools; administrators have simply prioritized spending money on the program, which cost $2.5 million this fiscal year. The finance department starts as early as possible to create the next year’s budget, working closely with district department leaders, Speidell said. She added that the special education department has a budget specialist who helps the district’s special education director identify where to shift funds within the overall special education budget to cover shortfalls.

In the district, which serves about 25,000 students, about 400 students with disabilities participate in special education preschool classes in 25 classrooms, with at least one classroom on each of the district’s 19 elementary campuses. Therapists serve an additional 40 students with disabilities outside of the preschool program. The program is free to students with disabilities, but a fee is charged to general education students. Beginning this fall, those students will be charged $250 a month, a $100 increase from the tuition in effect for the past five years.

On a recent morning in Ashley Navarette’s developmental preschool classroom at Surprise Elementary, nine 4-year-olds were busily engaged in activities at three pint-sized tables. Half the children had disabilities and attended the school for free; half did not, and paid to participate in the program.

At one table, a boy wearing a striped shirt carefully lined up plastic dinosaurs. “This is a ‘dramadasaurus,’” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s red.”

Another boy sitting next to him picked up a green stegosaurus and roared as he pretended his dinosaur was eating the red one. “Ms. Ashley! He’s trying to scare me!” the first boy said. Navarette swooped in and crouched down. “Why don’t we arrange the dinosaurs by color,” she suggested.

As Navarette guided the students to play together, a speech therapist walked into the classroom and found a little girl at another table.

“Are you ready for speech?” she asked the girl. The girl nodded and got up from the table.

“What’s that pink thing?” another student asked, pointing to a tiny device in the little girl’s ear.

“That helps her hear better!” the speech therapist said with a smile.

“Ohh!” the other student said, returning to her activity.

Typically, a child being pulled out for special services is the only clue that a student in Navarette’s class has a disability. And often, therapists will come into the classroom and run a center, allowing all students to receive exposure to speech therapy or work on their fine motor skills.

Research shows providing opportunities for students with disabilities to attend preschool programs works: An analysis of data by the Early Childhood Outcomes Center found over 75 percent of children who participate in federally-funded special education preschool programs and services show “greater than expected growth in knowledge and skills, social relationships and taking action to meet needs,” according to a 2014 report. Nearly every state reported that at least 70 percent of kids enrolled in special education preschool and services showed a substantially increased rate of growth in positive social-emotional skills, according to a 2016 report by the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.

Clark Crace, director of exceptional student services for Dysart, said many students who leave Dysart’s developmental preschool program and enter the district’s kindergarten program no longer require services or are able to exit special education completely “because those early intervening services helped close those developmental gaps.” This year, 40 percent of the district’s developmental preschool students will start kindergarten either without the need for any special education services, or needing only services to improve speech. Twenty percent exited special education completely.

And while every child may not be able to exit special education, educators say the preschool program better prepares students with disabilities to be comfortable and confident in school, which is especially important for students who may start behind their peers in academic or developmental skills.

“The first week of school, the kindergarten teacher will be like, ‘That kid was in preschool.’ They know how to navigate the classroom. They know how to line up, go to the bus, go to the playground,” said Crace.

Nationwide, most kids in developmental pre-K qualify under one of two disability categories, developmental delays and speech-language delays. Heather Fogelson, a preschool liaison for the district who helps children transition into preschool, said the presence of peers without such disabilities is especially helpful for children who have speech delays. Those children are able to hear speech from their peers and learn how to converse despite challenges. “You really see that communication blossom,” Fogelson said.

But developmental preschool has traditionally separated kids with disabilities from their peers, according to Suzanne Perry with the Arizona Department of Education. In 2016, 35 states reported that fewer than 50 percent of children ages 3 to 5 with disabilities were served mostly in a regular education setting.

Perry said there has been some recent momentum to prioritize inclusiveness, after the release of a 2017 “Dear Colleague” letter from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education and rehabilitative services, encouraging districts to expand inclusive practices.

Dysart preschool teacher Megan Jones said inclusion immediately integrates kids with disabilities into the school community. “They have a sense of belonging,” she said. “They become close as a class.”

On a recent afternoon in her inclusive developmental preschool classroom at Sonoran Heights Elementary, she stood by the entrance as her students filed in. “Can you find your name?” Jones said to the first student who entered the room. The girl looked at a large reader board and found a colorful card with her name on it. She moved it to the top of the board to show she was present.

“Let’s go wash our hands,” said a paraprofessional, gently guiding the student toward the sink.

The rest of Jones’ class filed in, found their names, washed their hands, and chose their seats from three tables, with various toys and activities scattered on top, set up on the side of the classroom. While most children sat down, eager to play with the toys, others were distracted.

One little boy in a red shirt sat for a few seconds before jumping up from his chair, grabbing some colorful plastic bears off a table and throwing them across the classroom. Jones turned and walked over to him. “Go get those bears,” she said in an upbeat but firm voice. The child laid down on the ground. “Pick up!” she said again, helping him stand up. “Can you put them in the bucket?” The child turned and tried to go sit at a table. “Pick up first!” she reminded him. The child ran over, picked up the bears, and took them back to the table.

“He just started in January,” Jones said as she watched him play at a table. “We’re still learning.”

Jones’ goal is to expose children to concepts like letter names and sounds, but also to skills like how to line up, how to transition to new activities, and how to follow rules. Fifteen minutes later, after every student had arrived, Jones instructed the children to clean up and join her at a brightly-colored carpet in the middle of the room. Kids quickly wiped off small white boards and threw plastic body parts from a Mr. Potato Head game back into buckets and meandered over to the carpet, each choosing their own colorful square to sit on.

Jones sat at the top of the carpet on a small chair and started to lead the students in a song. “Here we are together, together, together, here we are together,” Jones sang as the children joined. The little boy in the red shirt sat briefly, then got up, running circles around the classroom with the plastic bears stuck on five of his fingers. “He can get up,” Jones said quietly to a paraprofessional, who was deciding whether to encourage him to sit or let him run around.

“It’s so crucial to get these kids served early,” Jones said later. “It makes the world of a difference. It sets them up for the rest of their lives.”

Lindsey Eakins, whose son is in Jones’ class, said Corbin has continued to progress during his first year of preschool. He’s learned his shapes, numbers and colors and has made friends with his classmates. His speech has improved to the point where he no longer gets frustrated because people can’t understand him. “Now he talks too much,” Eakins joked.

She’s encouraged by his growing self-esteem. “I want him to be confident,” she said. “This is a lifelong diagnosis. But I want him to have that confidence to say, ‘I have apraxia, but I can overcome it.’”

This story about developmental preschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.