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CalSTAT (California Services for Technical Assistance and Training) is a special project of the California Department of Education, Special Education Division, located at Napa County Office of Education. It is funded through the Special Education Division and the California State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG). The SPDG, a federal grant, supports and develops partnerships with schools and families by providing training, technical assistance and resources to both special education and general education.
By Linda Brault
As with so many educational concerns during these challenging economic times, early childhood programs are experiencing dramatic threats to their state and federal funding. However, there are some positive things happening, particularly in the amount of attention being paid to how we care for and educate young children.
But first, the bad news.
The budget reports out of Sacramento have been grim and are not getting any
rosier. Early Intervention (EI) programs—those programs that provide services
to very young children with special needs—have been asked to make 3.5 percent
spending cuts across the board, with another 7 percent cut in the works. Most
programs have very little overhead, so these shortfalls force difficult choices
that leave early intervention administrators scratching their heads.
As a sign of the times, the Infant Development Association of California recently held a facilitated meeting titled “How to Cope in Stressful Times” in the San Fernando Valley. In addition, members of the Early Intervention Directors Forum of Los Angeles County have
been meeting since 2008 to discuss similar issues. Shelley Cox, executive director for Step-by-Step, has been attending these events. As she sees it, those early intervention programs that are contracted with regional centers (“vendored”) to provide necessary services are coping with budget-related concerns in a number of ways:
Cox sees these coping strategies as presenting their own problems. Some
agencies report that pay cuts are making it difficult to retain and attract
highly qualified staff. In addition, the EI directors in Los Angeles are
already seeing fewer children being identified for services and more children
being simply “followed,” particularly children under age three. The fear
is that the money is just not there to serve them, even though the children
may be eligible for services.
Special education programs for children over age three are also suffering. There have been dramatic cuts in most school district programs, which have impacted caseloads, service hours, and options for children. Most specifically, there continues to be a large demand for intensive services for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. At the same time, districts are being asked to examine costs in general, the specific costs for the transportation of children with individual education programs (IEPs), and encroachment on general education funding. Preschool programs in the community and within districts are aware of the need to increase the enrollment of children in inclusive programs, but they are struggling to find the time and personnel to make this happen within their existing structures.
The list goes on. In general, no one seems to have the time or the money to maintain the high quality of services that everyone desires for young children.
But there is good news.
President Obama specifically mentioned early childhood programs in many of
his postinaugural speeches. In general, there seems to be a renewed understanding
in Washington that early childhood begins at birth, and early care and education
for the youngest children is being supported in a number of ways.
For a start, there is the Obama-Biden “Zero to Five” plan that places “key emphasis at early care and education for infants, which is essential for children to be ready to enter kindergarten.” The plan will create Early Learning Challenge Grants to do the following:
Information on these funds will be available at the www.whitehouse.gov Web site, as well as through such organizations as the California Head Start
Association (www.caheadstart.org), National Head Start Association (www.nhsa.org),
and Preschool California (www.preschool
The budget submitted to Congress also recommends an increase in funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including specific increases in Part C (for infants and toddlers) and the preschool section 619 of Part B. In addition, there is money in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for states under both Part B and Part C. Under the Part B recommendations, states may “expand the availability and range of inclusive placement options for preschoolers with disabilities by developing the capacity of public and private preschool programs to serve these children.” The Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children will have information on these efforts (www.dec-sped.org).
At a more local level, several groups within California are working to bring
together policymakers, advocates, and individuals who provide direct services
to young children. The April 2, 2009, Child Development Policy Institute
(CDPI) Information Bulletin highlighted a number of recent events that were
designed to support early educators in these challenging times. The atmosphere
of these events was described as full of “energy, hope, and enthusiasm” for
three reasons: the research showing the importance of supporting very young
children’s growth and development is stronger than ever; the people who hold
the purse strings at both state and federal levels are beginning to understand
the importance of designing programs that promote learning from birth; and
more people than ever are learning how to collaborate across systems and
How can this good news support us—early childhood special educators/early interventionists, family members, family support professionals, and administrators—as we cope with the bad news? We must take advantage of collaborative opportunities, build on existing efforts, and look for new possibilities.
One new possibility presents itself in the current expansion of Early Head
Start/Head Start. Since many early childhood special education (ECSE)/EI
programs already have good relationships with local Head Start providers,
this may be a good time to reinforce relationships and expand partnerships.
For example, ECSE/EI programs could offer a spare classroom to an agency
operating Head Start in exchange for enrolling children with disabilities
(those with individualized family service plans [IFSPs] and individual education
programs [IEPs]). Some ECSE/EI program operators could choose to apply to
operate an Early Head Start program as part of their array of services. And
ECSE/EI staff could collaborate in professional development with the Early
Head Start/Head Start programs by cosponsoring training, providing training,
or attending trainings.
As attention on early childhood translates into opportunities for programs and grants, school districts can bring together their ECSE leaders and other early childhood leaders to plan for services to all children within a district or Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). For example, many school districts operate state-funded preschools or other general early childhood programs in a department that does not include the ECSE/EI staff. Different administrators often oversee specialized services, such as programs for the deaf or hard of hearing, programs for the visually impaired or for related services (such as speech therapy), and adaptive physical education. If everyone who works with children under the age of five would come together, they could generate new ideas and create new collaborative opportunities through local funding (such as First 5) or federal grants.
School districts and local education agencies are being asked to dramatically increase the percentage of children with disabilities served in settings with typically developing children from 47.7 percent to 66 percent by 2010–2011. This creates another strong incentive for collaboration between general and special education, which also opens up the potential for increasing services in the least restrictive environments for preschool children with IEPs (California’s State Performance Plan Indicator #6).
The discussion about the importance of appropriate, high-quality care and education for children from birth through age five will continue during the current administration. As planning continues, early childhood professionals and family members can help to ensure that all children, including children with special needs, have access to high-quality, affordable child care.
First, there are a number of groups in California working to translate this recognition of importance into programs and services. Many of the professional associations, such as the Infant Development Association of California, the California Division for Early Education, the California Association for the Education of Young Children, and Head Start and preschool sites will be important catalysts and contacts in this effort.
Second, as leaders struggle to determine how to prioritize and fund various
programs and activities, early childhood staff need to share their knowledge
of effective, evidence-based practice and the long-term impact of early intervention
Then, when people wonder where tax dollars are being spent or how the stimulus money is being used, ECSE/EI staff should be able to provide examples of how these monies are supporting children with disabilities in our communities. ECSE/EI staff can also prepare a very specific list of how new money could be spent, with a budget for each idea, so that when an opportunity presents itself, they are ready to act.
And finally, ECSE/EI staff can support leadership by keeping a long view.
Those of us who have been in this profession for many years have seen the
ebb and flow of money. This is not the first time finances have been tight,
and it will not be the last. However, we know what is effective: early intervention
is effective, quality preschool is effective, collaboration among agencies
is effective. We need to make sure this knowledge continues to inform decisions.
While budget angst is real, it does not have to paralyze us. We can use it
as an opportunity to become more creative.
Finally, regardless of how the money flows, we must stay determined in our efforts to support all young children. As we look ahead, we must remember that these children are our future.