By Mina Hong and Carrie Gillispie
Amid all the disruption to in-person learning due to the pandemic, it’s time to focus on children with disabilities, which account for 1.2 million young children birth through five. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first enacted in 1975, inclusive early care and education (ECE) programs, where children with disabilities learn alongside children without disabilities, is integrated in the federal special education law. Inclusive education has many benefits for all children, regardless of disability status. In fact, inclusion is so essential to child development that it is integrated in federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) requirement, IDEA calls for young children with developmental delays and disabilities to receive special education and related services alongside typically developing peers in all settings. For young children, LRE includes school-based preschool and community-based settings like Head Start and child care; yet, far too few children with disabilities have had access to these high-quality inclusive options.
Now, Congress has the power to change that with the Build Back Better Act (BBB) and increased IDEA funding in the federal Fiscal Year 2022 (FFY2022) budget. By leveraging these federal investments, states can revolutionize ECE to be truly inclusive and equitable for our nation’s youngest learners with delays and disabilities.
BBB combined with anticipated IDEA funding increases in FFY2022 provides a historic opportunity to expand full inclusion across early childhood settings. BBB significantly invests in expanding equitable access to ECE for families who have been historically underserved — families with lower incomes, families of color, and families of young children with disabilities. Though BBB prioritizes enrollment of young children with delays and disabilities in ECE programs, additional dedicated funding in BBB to support their inclusion is not explicitly defined. Therefore, it is paramount that these expanded early learning opportunities are directed to underserved children with delays and disabilities – particularly children of color – in school and community-based settings that best meet families’ and children’s needs. The anticipated funding increase in the FFY2022 budget will further support the delivery of early intervention, special education and related services to young children under IDEA Part C and IDEA Part B 619. Together, BBB and the IDEA funding proposed in FFY2022 can support the expansion of full inclusion across high quality ECE in all settings.
Despite best efforts, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) face barriers to providing inclusive community-based services outside of school district classrooms including limited guidance, budgetary constraints, and workforce shortages. LEA leaders have expressed the need for guidance and examples of effective service delivery and staffing models to support inclusive special education and related services to all children residing in their districts across ECE settings. Unfortunately, the children who are disproportionately impacted by this are young children from families with lower income, particularly families of color. This group of children are often forced to attend both their community-based program and a school-based program to receive special education services, resulting in multiple bus rides and transitions in a single day. Some families even forego critical special education services to avoid these transitions. Additionally, the workforce crisis that has plagued the early childhood field has led to a staff shortage, which is also acutely felt by the early childhood special education field. While BBB includes provisions to boost compensation for the ECE workforce, funding is also needed to attract and retain special educators. Coupling BBB and FFY2022 funding can support LEAs and their ECE partners as they create equitable systems to ensure programs have the financial resources, workforce capacity, and clear federal guidance needed to support equitable inclusion.
Given this, it is paramount that the U.S. Senate pass the Build Back Better Act in a timely manner while Congress approves the FFY2022 budget with the IDEA Part C and Part B 619 funding increases. Once passed, the federal government should provide clear guidance on how states and communities will ensure children receive special education and related services in all settings. And states, communities, and LEAs should plan how they will collaborate to equitably support young children with disabilities in early childhood settings expanded through new federal dollars. Here’s how:
- Clearly delineating in state plans the ways in which state and local policies and practices will operationalize equitable access and quality in ECE for young children with disabilities and developmental delays across settings. Specifically, plans should prioritize families with low incomes, dual language learners, and from other underserved populations as defined in BBB.
- Prioritizing inclusion in mixed delivery settings, including giving all educators access to resources on high-quality inclusion practices and giving LEAs clear guidance and sufficient funding to do so. This also includes professional development and systems of support for educators to reduce the suspension and expulsion of young children with disabilities and children of color.
- Providing equitable and accessible pathways to obtaining early childhood special education qualifications in order to strengthen the workforce; providing service scholarships and loan forgiveness programs for special education trainees to increase incentives to enter the profession; and most importantly, providing adequate compensation for the entire ECE workforce including special education teachers.
- Collecting and publicly reporting data on district- and program-level adherence to LRE across early childhood settings and disciplinary data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, family income level, gender, dual language learner status, and disability category under IDEA.
Young children with disabilities have always faced systemic barriers to the strong start they deserve. Now is the time for Congress, states, LEAs, and communities to each do their part and collaborate, so that young children with delays and disabilities can access the equitable and inclusive services and supports they need and deserve.
With contributions by Karen Berman, Katie Fisher and Amanda Schwartz