Overlap plagues services to early learners with disabilities

Overlap plagues services to early learners with disabilities

(Calif.) Multiple agencies and programs are charged with serving California’s estimated 41,000 infants and toddlers with special needs, which causes administrative overlap and confusion for families, according to a new review from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst.

To simplify the system, save money and improve services, the LAO has suggested that lawmakers unify delivery under an existing network of non-profit regional centers that already coordinate intervention to the lion’s share of those children.

The analysis found that the savings to the state would range between $5 million to $35 million annually.

“The exact savings would depend on many factors, including how many infants and toddlers continue to be served by schools under relatively generous interim regional center contracts and how many early intervention therapies are billed to third-party insurers,” the LAO said, noting that the Legislature would need to remove the program funding from under the Proposition 98 umbrella.

If so, the LAO said, the savings could be repurposed for any number of uses including other state services and programs, or lawmakers could invest the money back into the system.

There is increasing focus on how schools are preparing early learners prior to entering kindergarten, lifted in part by an initiative by former President Barack Obama to expand access to high-quality pre-k education programs to all children from low- and middle-income families. President Donald Trump’s spending plan, however, would revise much of the funding for the program.

In some parts of the state, toddlers with special needs have traditionally been served by local school districts or county offices of education, with programs being developed at the direction of local needs. There is also a long history in other places where non-profit regional centers that initially were working with special needs adults and school-age children also took on the state’s youngest clients.

Beginning in the 1980s, the role of the regional centers expanded as the result of new federal grant money.

Currently, the state provides funding to 97 school districts and county offices to serve any eligible child. State law also mandates that all schools provide services to children under the age of 3 that have hearing or visual disabilities.

There are also the regional centers, overseen by the Department of Developmental Services, which oversees support to about 34,000 young children every year. The centers cost about $480 million per year, with the state providing $370 million of the cost.

The LAO found that services provided by schools tend to be more costly than the regional centers—with the cost per child averaging about $16,000 at schools, and $10,000 at the centers.

Based on interviews with stakeholders, the LAO said that schools are more likely to use credentialed teachers who are typically paid a lot better than other early education specialists to provide intervention services.