Bill Would Extend Special Education to All Students K-3

DOVER – Lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday designed to provide assistance and meet the needs of special education students as early as kindergarten.

The Delaware education system classifies special education students into three categories: basic, intensive and complex. The state currently funds additional teacher units for intensive and complex special education from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The state only funds basic special education from fourth through 12th grade, leaving a gap in support for kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.

House Bill 30, sponsored by Rep. Kim Williams and Sens. Harris McDowell and Nicole Poore, would extend state funding for basic special education to kindergarten through third grade. The proposal is an effort to promote earlier identification and assistance for these students, which supporters said would potentially mitigate costs to the education system over the long term.

“As a mother of two children who were identified very early as developmentally delayed, I know firsthand how important it is to have teachers in place to provide quality services,” said Rep. Williams, D-Marshallton. “Research has proven that early identification and intervention are critical to a child’s overall success. By the time a child reaches third grade, they should be transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn. If we are committed to fundamentally improving the quality of education in our state, then we must make a commitment early on.”

Because the bill would lead to hiring more than 130 new teachers statewide to educate young children with special needs, HB 30 will carry a fiscal note of approximately $11 million. Rep. Williams noted that any upfront cost would likely be offset in the long run by reducing demands on state services and helping kids be successful later in life.

“By not assessing the education preparedness of our kids and not applying corrective measures at the earliest stages, we are unwittingly growing Delaware’s population of at-risk youth,” said Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, D-Wilmington North, who chairs the Senate Children Youth & Families Committee. “We are not inspiring and molding their educational experience during their most formative years. By the time we do offer the extra attention needed by kids who are at-risk – kids who may, in fact, be scholars in waiting – it’s too late for most to catch up. Then, we throw a ton of money at the crisis on the back end in trying to turn back the clock. It’s time our state gets more proactive when it comes to education and this is an important place to start.”

According a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education, Delaware is one of three states that might require federal intervention due to its lack of quality special education programs. That is something bill sponsors hope to change through this measure.

“Delaware must make special needs education a priority at the ages where it matters most,” said Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle. “The cognitive learning that takes place early in a child’s academic career informs their successes down the road, and we owe it to our kids to make sure they’re getting the instruction and attention they need at the outset, as disabilities are identified.”

The proposal aligns with a recommendation from the Wilmington Education Advisory Group, which calls for a modification of current unit count formula to expand special education status to grades  K-3.

Tricia Dallas, an early childhood special education teacher in Red Clay Consolidated School District, applauded the bill’s sponsors for pushing to help all children with special needs earlier in their development.

“As an early childhood special educator, I know that providing high quality services as early as possible can make a difference in a child's success in school,” Ms. Dallas said. “Successful passage would ensure districts finally receive funding for the services they are required to provide. This bill represents a vital first step in the overhaul of the Delaware’s funding formula for students requiring special education services.”

HB 30, which has 29 co-sponsors, has been assigned to the House Education Committee.