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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Disabled kids need earliest services

The Spokesman-Review

There’s more to public education than most people realize when they think of K-12 – kindergarten through 12th grade.

For children with disabilities, the state has a legal obligation to provide education services starting not at age 5, but at age 3 and continuing through age 21. The more effectively that duty is performed, the more able those children are to surpass personal hurdles, the more easily they will take a constructive role as citizens, and the fewer demands they will impose on society to help them face challenges.

The fact is, age 3 probably isn’t early enough, which is why Washington state law gives public school districts the option of adding disabled children younger than 3 to their special education figures. Researchers know there is a window, beginning at birth, when intervention services can head off the need for more intense services later.

For reasons that are puzzling, though, only about half the districts in the state seize this opportunity. In Spokane County, only three or four small districts do so. The large districts with their concentrated student populations do not.

It’s not as though cost is a problem. The state provides the funding so a Spokane or Mead wouldn’t have to. Central Valley or Cheney wouldn’t have to come up with added staffing, supplies or building space; the law lets a district contract the specialized service out to a qualified agency such as the highly respected Spokane Guilds’ School.

Experience shows that when children receive services between birth and 3, they need less attention later on. Nearly 20 percent of those who benefit from early intervention no longer need services when they enter preschool.

As it is, the Guilds’ School already is providing the kind of intervention services called for. But it’s doing so out of other funding sources, including the generosity of its loyal donors, while state dollars that have been appropriated for the purpose go untouched.

In Spokane County, that is.

In many parts of the state, local school districts see to it that their communities get back some of the taxes their constituents (and Spokane’s) have paid. All 14 school districts in Yakima County participate, contracting the actual program to a local lead agency. Eleven of 19 districts in King County include the birth to 3 population, and Seattle is about to join them.

For the past dozen years, the Guilds’ School has been encouraging Spokane County school districts to exercise the same option, but to no avail. Reluctance is tied to expense anxiety, even though the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has put it emphatically that unforeseen funding obligations would fall on the Department of Social and Health Services, not the local schools.

Because so many local school districts across the state have balked at stepping up to this need, the Legislature in recent years has begun exploring prescriptive strategies. Bills introduced last year and expected to be offered again in Olympia would make it mandatory to serve disabled children from birth.

Washington state, a pioneer in the field, passed the country’s first public special education act in 1971. It’s sad to think that after more than 30 years of leadership, it may still take statutory action to persuade education leaders to do the right thing.

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