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The High Costs of Special Ed Pre-K

The NYT's David Halbfinger takes a look at high and rising costs of preschool special education in New York City and state. While New York's high costs are a bit of an outlier nationally, special ed pre-k is a significant, but often overlooked part of both state early childhood and special ed systems that deserves increased attention.

Under IDEA, preschool-aged children who have been identified with a disability are entitled to special education and related services in the least restrictive environment. In practice, this means that states or school districts must provide preschool for children with disabilities. Nationally, about 8 percent of 3-5-year-olds receive special education preschool services under what is known as Section 619 of IDEA, the majority of them in general preschool and Head Start settings, including state pre-k. The federal government provides about $373 million annually for special ed preschool, and $444 million for IDEA services to infants and toddlers--but these resources cover only a fraction of the costs of preschool special ed, the remainder of which must be borne by states and local school districts. The National Institute for Early Education Research estimates that states and local school districts spent about $6 billion on special ed preschool in 2011--roughly the same amount they spent on state-funded and universal pre-k programs, which serve substantially more children. Add in the cost of mandated early intervention services, and states are actually spending more on preschool and early childhood services for children with disabilities than they are on all other early childhood services combines.

This fact should raise questions for policymakers. Obviously, policymakers have an obligation, both in law and morally, to ensure that we are meeting the educational and developmental needs of our must vulnerable preschoolers. And there is clear evidence that intervening early with high-quality early childhood education can improve long-term outcomes for children with disabilities and in some cases reduce costs down the road. But should state and local governments really be spending more on services for the less than 10% of preschoolers with disabilities than they do on all other preschool-aged children combined? Particularly given increasing research evidence that poverty and related early childhood trauma and be as great of risk factors for children's later learning and life outcomes as some disabilities? And the evidence that investing in quality pre-k now can reduce rates of special education placement later? Is it possible that, if we incorporated preschool services for children with disabilities into more universal systems of quality pre-k for at-risk youngsters, we might actually achieve efficiencies that could partially offset the costs of expanded services, while also better serving youngsters with disabilities in more inclusive environments? And, if we can build inclusive universal preschool systems that generate reductions in K-12 special ed costs, can we design financing mechanisms that capture those savings to pay for part of the costs of pre-K?

These are incredibly politically dicey questions to ask, but they're important ones if we care about both improving outcomes for young children--including those with disabilities--and shepherding public early childhood resources wisely. Ultimately neither children with disabilities, nor other at-risk preschoolers, are well-served by avoiding tough questions on this topic.

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