WXXI Local Stories
6:20 pm
Sun January 9, 2011

Making Sense of Mandates: Pre-School Special Education

Rochester – Monroe County wants to get out of the business of pre-school special education, which is costing more and more each year. WXXI's Carlet Cleare examines the mandate requiring the county to pay for it, and she takes a look at what would happen to area families if the mandate is removed.

Sitting in his motorized wheelchair, Drew Ricci is scooping up and dropping gold jingle bells into a cup with his speech therapist Kim Miller at C P Rochester.

"All right, let's scoop it up," says Miller. "All right, here we go. Let's get it back in the cup, yea, good work."

Drew has cerebral palsy. His mom, Kristin Ricci says up until a year ago, he had to use a device to talk for him. Not anymore.

"His ability to speak now is just like hearing angels sing, because we didn't know," says Ricci.

New York State has been a leader in providing services like this. The state education department implemented a pre-school special education program more than two decades ago. The idea is a good one: help to bring children between the ages of three and five up-to-speed before they get to kindergarten. Otherwise, studies show they will fall farther behind and require more expensive public services later on.

"This early intervention whether it's up through three-years old or three to five-years old is really a very cost effective preventative strategy," says Kathleen Russell, special education professor at Nazareth College's Inclusive Childhood Education program.

"And it speaks to what we all want, which is all of our children at five to come to school ready to learn, can make the most of their free appropriate school age time. And then when they finish high school can be able to go out, and whatever route they chose, can become productive members of our society."

Russell says approximately 60% of preschoolers who receive special education services won't need them as they enter kindergarten. So why does the county want out? Three reasons: First it's getting really expensive. Originally, counties were supposed to see their contributions drop over time while the school districts started picking up the tab. But instead, the cost for counties has more than doubled over the last decade. Monroe County is now spending $14 million to send disabled children to preschool. Second, the program is a mess. A 2007 state task force, made up of providers, counties, schools and special needs groups found a long list of inefficiencies, as well as lack of provider training, limited choices for parents, and so on. Finally, the county has no power to try to fix it.

Mike Dedee is the Division Manager responsible for the special education program in Monroe County. "We have no decision making power in terms of what services are provided, what frequency those services are provided, and what happens with the children."

Dedee says something has to change.

"I don't know what, but it's important for us to really kind of push it, and advocate for either the necessary funding to run these programs or for them to be absorbed by the appropriate entities," Dedee explains. "Or ask, if there's a different way that we can manage them."

Dedee served on the 2007 task force, which submitted multiple recommendations to the state for improving the program. And one of them was to phase out county contributions entirely by 2013. That said, even he worries about what will happen to the program if the mandate requiring counties to pay for it - is removed.

"Realistically, the counties can't continue with this unfunded mandate," says Dedee. "It's not reasonable to assume that the state or the school districts can pick it up automatically either. It's going to be a hardship on whoever has it."

Dedee says, perhaps, an outside funder could pitch in. Whatever the solution, about 18-hundred preschoolers in Monroe County alone will be affected. And some families, like the Ricci's, see no alternative.

"If these programs didn't exist, he won't be accepted into a typical preschool, he would just be home until Kindergarten," says Ricci.

Like any mom, Kristin is still nervous about Drew heading to Kindergarten this fall. But seeing how far he's come in preschool, really helps.