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Policy Post: Serving More But With Less

March 15, 2010

Court’s Kids will periodically provide some background information on special education policy from the federal level down to individual school programs.

The Oregonian recently had a great article on the surge in children with special needs being served in Oregon’s early childhood programs. There was a particularly dramatic 35% spike for kids under 3 in Multnomah County (which includes Portland and communities along the Columbia River).  The article cites an innovative identification effort led by the Oregon Pediatric Society as a key reason behind these higher numbers.

“About 95 percent of children are seen by doctors or nurse practitioners between birth and age 3, because they get sick and because they need immunizations, says Dr. David Willis, medical director of the Artz Center for Developmental Health in Portland and president of the state pediatrician’s group.

Preschools and daycare centers don’t have nearly that kind of reach.

So the pediatrician’s group felt an imperative to train the doctors and nurses who treat infants and toddlers in two key areas: How to screen for developmental delay and what programs and services they should refer families to, should a possible delay be detected.”

Makes sense right? Using the same highly trained people that we trust our children’s physical health with to screen them at an early age for developmental delays is a great step forward. Not only are more pediatricians doing this, but they are being equipped with better tools and updated methodologies that add a new level of competency.  These new numbers suggest that this initiative along with other efforts is successfully getting more children identified and at an earlier age.

Despite this achievement, a bigger question still looms. How do we provide these children with the environment they need to thrive? This is particularly relevant question with school districts and programs nationwide facing revenue shortfalls from the recession and public pressure to find savings. Many efforts are losing funding, being forced to make do with less or close their doors all together. While the stimulus filled many of the gaps this year, that resource didn’t cover everything, and worse, it will eventually run dry.

In addition to the problem of shortages, in Oregon’s case the budget process itself has been cited as another roadblock. An August 2009 proposal by the Oregon Department of Education states bluntly that “clearly service levels were decreasing” with drops in the hours available per child between 2004 and 2007.  A central solution the report proposes is to restructure the state funding model from a static budget determined every two years by the legislature to a more active process “where funding is moved to a data-driven formula based on child needs and caseload growth” and decisions “more fairly reflect local programmatic needs.” The process for federal funding of special education also has its critics, particularly with the perpetually underfunded IDEA mandate (discussed previously here).  These arguments extend to the federal government’s extremely complex formula for funding the states, which some believe ignores important numbers like poverty and local funding levels.

With more students, less revenue, and problems with how we fund these programs in the first place, Court’s Kids efforts are needed now more than ever.

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