Special education funding dries up for some kids in kindergarten

Some of Indiana’s students with special needs are not receiving the help they need, and it’s mostly because of the state’s narrow age range during which kids can be diagnosed as falling behind their peers.

Kids who get extra help — and extra state funding — in preschool often don’t see that support follow as they enter kindergarten, special education experts explained to legislators Tuesday at a study committee meeting.

In Indiana, a child can be identified as having a “developmental delay” from birth to age 5 for challenges such as cognitive or emotional issues, problems with hearing or vision or even lags in eating or dressing skills. The state offers preschools an extra $2,750 per-student to support them.

But once kindergarten comes around, the money disappears.

Because state law doesn’t recognize developmental delays as a special education category for kids older than 5, neither do elementary schools.

Preschoolers who have already been receiving state-funded special education services can lose them entirely in kindergarten if they aren’t diagnosed with a disability in a recognized category, such as autism or speech and language problems.

It’s common that young children with some developmental delays don’t show signs of a specific disability that early, Brownsburg Early Childhood Center coordinator Jennifer Newingham said. In fact, she said, until age 8, it’s not really possible to give an accurate intelligence test, which are used in the process of evaluating a child’s cognitive ability. They’re simply too young for that kind of test.

“Here’s a kid — he’s not where he needs to be based on nationally accepted developmental milestones — so we’re going to provide him support to make sure he’s where he needs to be,” Newingham said of typical state preschool services. “But once they hit 5, you’re on your own.”

Newingham said last year in her school, 52 kids were identified as having a developmental delay of one kind or another. Only 17 of those students qualified for any special education services in kindergarten.

About 4,189 preschoolers last year qualified as having developmental delays, said Pam Wright, director of special educations services for the Indiana Department of Education. That’s about 20 percent of the almost 18,000 preschool students in the state who were identified with any disability last year. So it could cost the state about $4 million per year to extend the qualifying age for developmental delays through age 9, she said, an age limit 31 other states use.

Newingham said kids who start school without the proper support are being set up to dislike school and eventually fall even further behind.

“What happens is unfortunately we put children in a situation where they are expected to fail before we can help them,” she said.

Starting to fall behind quickly

It can be a long wait for a student who has an undiagnosed disability to get the help they need in school.

Kids entering kindergarten often get tested for disabilities, but if the results don’t fit into already recognized disability categories, schools aren’t required under state law to re-evaluate students until they have data showing two years of poor performance, said Kim Dodson, associate executive director of The Arc of Indiana, a local nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities.

Indiana should increase its age range for diagnosing developmental delays to at least age 7, she said, so more kids can qualify for special education once they get into elementary school. Then there’s no wait or gap in support.

“The kids who aren’t identified past the age of 5 get identified later,” Dodson said. “They miss out on all those educational opportunities and resources that would make them more successful in school because they weren’t identified with a disability.”

Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said he learned of the age discrepancy when he visited the Brownsburg Early Childhood Center back in March.

“It was too late for me to introduce a bill, but I had tried to get this in the budget bill, but there just wasn’t enough time to try to identify what the (cost) would be,” Miller said. “We didn’t know if it was a $1 million impact or a $10 million impact. I think we still have some questions about what level of support … but at least now we at least have a number of kids we’re referring to if we do want to move forward with this policy.”

But parents don’t have to sit around and wait for schools or the legislature to step in, Dodson said. Parents can try to get their children diagnosed or request help earlier on their own, she said.

Most kids identified with delays, Dodson said, work through them if given the right help and might not end up needing more expensive Medicaid or special education services later on.

“I think the biggest thing is the potential of early intervention services between the ages of 5 to 7 is monumental,” Dodson said. “We all know there are hundreds of studies out there that show the earlier you are giving kids the tools they need to be successful, the more progress they are going to make.”