HB 33 would increase funding for preschool students with special needs. (Unsplash)

Preschool special ed. funding bill draws staffing, money concerns

Jarek Rutz Headlines, Education

HB 33 would increase funding for preschool students with special needs. (Unsplash)

HB 33 would increase funding for preschool students with special needs. (Unsplash)

A bill that would increase funding for preschool students with disabilities was released by the House Education Committee Wednesday, but not without some concerns. 

House Bill 33, sponsored by Rep. Kim Williams, D-Marshallton, would increase funding for those students by revising the current ratio of 12.8 students per education unit to 8.4 students per unit for preschoolers 3 years and older.

The new funding ratio would go into effect July 1, 2023. 

That’s also the time students with disabilities in kindergarten through third grade will get the same funding change via a law passed in July 2021 which aligned funding for students with disabilities for PreK with kindergarten through 12th grade. 

“As a parent with two children that have had developmental delay, I know from this experience how much early intervention is crucial for our children’s lives,” Williams said. “My children were able to receive necessary services early on, but we know too often stories of children that are left behind.”

HB 33 also creates a “preschool 2” unit with a ratio 7.0 students per funding unit, in order to accommodate 2-year-olds with disabilities who are enrolled in school district programs.

Cindy Brown, speaking on behalf of the Department of Education, defined the beneficiaries as students who “either have a significant developmental delay, autism or some other conditions so they’re not considered a typically-developing preschooler.”

The 12.8 funding ratio has been in place for 20 years. 

“When you look at that child with a disability, they really do take and require a lot more adult supervision and more support,” Brown said. “So by doing this, we’re going to do a much better job in providing all of those different supports that a little kiddo with disabilities needs to be to benefit from their special education.”

Lowering the ratio is crucial to their success, she said. 

Concerns with additional preschool funding 

Rep. Jeff Hilovski, R-Long Neck, questioned what metrics were used to land on the new 8.4 number, or if it was just arbitrary.

Brown indicated that the number was a result of recommendations from the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Office of Child Care Licensing

The state has 2,138 preschoolers that have disabilities, Brown said. There are about a thousand licensed childcare centers throughout the First State. 

“There’s  been a lot of impetus from the federal government to really look at early identification, especially around autism,” she said, “to make sure that we’re getting to these kids at a young age.”

The change in funding would cost the state $4,438,304 in Fiscal Year 2024, with the local share totalling $1,243,680. In Fiscal Year 2025, the state share would be $4,768,463 compared to the local share of $1,336,196. The state share would increase in Fiscal Year 2026 to $5,114,978, with the local share of $1,433,295, according to the bill’s fiscal note. 

Rep. Kevin Hensley, R-Odessa, reminded the group of the state’s teacher shortage. 

“Do we feel comfortable that there’s an adequate workforce available to be able to accommodate that growth?” he said. 

Brown admitted that was a good point.

“We know that our public schools are having a challenge to recruit and retain highly-qualified personnel, so that is a concern, it’s a legitimate question,” she said. 

Hensley said he’s in support of the bill’s intent, but thinks it could add to the crisis surrounding teacher shortages. 

He suggested that the state should look to leverage private childcare centers in order to have the proper staffing for public preschools. 

“Some districts are trying to do some innovative things to fill those voids,” Brown said, “and I think the same goes for special education teachers. We have to be innovative and thoughtful about how we can address that shortage.”

Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, said that back in his day, there wasn’t even kindergarten.

“I’m just old fashioned, and my thing was you got into school and after a while it became obvious you were doing well or you were not doing well, and the ones that were not doing well got extra effort,” he said. 

“But here we’re talking about 3, 4, 5-year-olds, and I’m having a hard time understanding why we’re going to identify so many more children at such a low age level. Once we get them identified and get them on this path, how do we be sure that we get them out of that path when they get to a point where they should be?”

The reason early identification and intervention is important, Brown said, is to change the child’s developmental trajectory and their path in life. 

She said it might also save the state money long-term. 

“If we get in there early to identify and give them and their parents the support they need,” she said, “we can reduce the need for special education and thereby reduce the costs as they go through the K to 12 system.”

Collins said he’s not trying to cast any aspersions but thinks that it’s natural for a school to spend money in other ways if they discover they didn’t need the additional funding for special education support. 

“That’s where the monitoring and the accountability comes in,” Brown said. “We have a pretty rigorous responsibility to the state and the federal government in terms of monitoring the identification of children, their processes, do they have appropriate policies and practices in place so that things like over-identification aren’t happening.”

Collins then went off topic to the chagrin of Williams, pointing out that there’s no evidence that state test scores are going up even though so many bills have been pumping money into education. 

“We’re not showing improvements, and I don’t think that anybody can present evidence to me that we are getting better, that our children are getting better,” he said. 

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Collins said a plethora of bills regarding special education have been passed in his three years on the House Education Committee. 

“It just seems like an awful lot all at once,” he said. “If you’re flying an airplane, you make a small correction and you see what happened before you just jam the stick all the way forward. I would love to see just a little bit slower pace of activity, and a little more evaluation before we move into the next action.”

The bill was released to the House floor.

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