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Infant and Toddler Special Education Passed Over for Other Initiatives

The end of 2014 marked a busy time for early-childhood educationBut the tiny (by federal government standards) program specifically earmarked to serve infants and toddlers up to age 2 who have developmental disabilities continues to get little attention. 

Referred to as Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it received $58,000 in new funds through the recently-passed budget deal for fiscal 2015, for a total of about $439 million. Part B of the IDEA, the vastly larger portion of federal special education spending that serves children and youth ages 3-21, received an additional $25 million, for a total of $11.5 billion.

 IDEA also allots money for children ages 3-5 through another part of IDEA. Called Section 619, this pot of money stayed the same between fiscal years 2014 and 2015, at $353 million. 

Contrast this to the nearly $250 million in preschool development grants the U.S. Department of Education recently parceled out to 18 states. Congress agreed to pony up an additional $250 million in the fiscal 2015 budget deal.

Also, the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced 234 preliminary grantees of $500 million in federal funding intended to connect Early Head Start providers with private centers that also care for infants and toddlers.

And that's on top of a billion dollars in investments over the past handful of years through programs such as the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants. 

The new initiatives do have some provisions for serving children with disabilities. For example, at least 10 percent of the children enrolled in care under the new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grants must have disabilities. The preschool development grants also have a requirement that states enroll a certain percentage of students with disabilities in high-quality preschools created through the new funding. 

But IDEA Part C, which has been funded at around the $440 million mark for more than 10 fiscal years, is the only program of its kind focused on offering early-intervention services and family support to children who are demonstrating some level of developmental delay. And a 2013 report published in Pediatrics, among the most recent on the subject, asserted that while the percentage of 24-month-old children eligible for Part C services ranges from 2 percent to about 40 percent (states have different thresholds for eligibility), the actual percentage of children served ranged from about 1.5 percent to 7 percent of those eligible. The study found that the largest discrepancies were in Washington and Michigan, which each had about 26 times more children eligible for Part C than served. 

The program faces dual problems: States may have criteria for Part C that are overly broad and reliant on inconsistent judgment calls, but the program also appears not to be enrolling enough children to meet the needs of those with the most significant delays, the report concludes. "More funding and a better understanding of how best to use those funds are urgently needed," the authors wrote. 

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