State plan would cut back on early childhood special education

Thursday, October 23, 2003

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Budget shortfalls are forcing the state to consider dropping early childhood special education for children with mild or moderate speech disorders and some developmental delays.

Missouri's cost of providing early childhood special education has nearly doubled in the last five years to $99 million. About 10,000 children ages 3 to 5 received the services last school year -- up from about 7,000 five years earlier.

Martha Disbennett, director of early childhood special education for the Special School District in St. Louis County, said no one knows how many children would be affected, but preliminary assessments suggest the changes could be dramatic.

"We know we will miss kids," she said.

Estimates show that the cost of early childhood special education could reach $146.7 million in three years -- nearly equal to the amount spent on special education for 136,000 students in grades K-12, said Deborah Parsons, state coordinator for special education services.

The state is "trying to differentiate between children with disabilities and children with delays that are within normal developmental ranges," Parsons said.

Under current guidelines, a preschooler able to understand what is said but unable to speak may receive speech therapy. But under the changes, he or she might not get that treatment.

Ginger Johnson, a parent and president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Missouri, said that could mean that the child could wind up in kindergarten unable to express himself.

In addition, a child who has trouble making certain sounds now can qualify for speech therapy at age 3. With the changes, a child would have to wait 18 months to qualify.

The state proposal also would eliminate the option of a professional deciding whether a child has a delay or disability if the problem does not show up on a test.

Parents also say it is unfair to reduce spending on special education at the same time that requirements for the academic performance of students -- including special education students -- have increased.

On Wednesday, children who need special education services attended preschool at Bristol Primary School in Webster Groves with children in a regular preschool program. From time to time, speech and language therapist Katie Wilson pulled children from classes for extra therapy.

Tracy Smith's 3-year-old son is being evaluated at Bristol for the possibility of speech and language therapy.

"They can't take this service away, just like they shouldn't take physical education out of school," Smith said. "Don't take something that's a prevention away."

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