Preschool for special education faces cuts

Saturday, October 25, 2003

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.

Cape Girardeau School District officials say they aren't sure how many local students might be impacted, but they're concerned about the potential change in criteria.

"If you suddenly raise the bar, what happens to those children who are left out?" said Deena Ring, Cape Girardeau's director of special education.

"Early intervention is always best. There may be some children who miss out on that," Ring 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.

Tracy Smith's 3-year-old son is being evaluated at at Bristol Primary School in Webster Groves 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."

Staff writer Callie Clark contributed to this report.

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