FRANKFORT – The cornerstone of 1990s Kentucky Education Reform Act was that all children deserve an equal opportunity to learn. It shouldn’t matter where the child lives or what challenges the child may face; each is entitled to the best we have to offer in the classroom. That’s especially true for those students with disabilities.
There are seven million children across the country who fall into that category, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and in Kentucky, there are just under 100,000 between the ages of three and 21 being taught in our elementary and secondary schools. That’s about 15 percent of the overall student population.
Last week, the General Assembly’s Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee discussed a report that took a closer look at how well Kentucky’s schools are meeting the needs of these students. It’s the third major review since 2008 by the Office of Education Accountability (OEA), which the legislature authorized in 1990 to serve as an outside monitor of public education.
What the latest report found is that Kentucky is doing well in some important areas but lags in others.
On the positive side, students in special education programs here have a higher graduation rate than their counterparts nationally. That’s largely because they have made a lot of progress over the past decade when it comes to leaving high school with a diploma. Two-thirds of special-needs students in Kentucky met this goal in 2005, but that jumped to three-fourths in 2014.
In other good news, U.S. Dept. of Education officials said last month that Kentucky is also among the 24 states meeting federal requirements when it comes to special education. Such states as California, Colorado, Ohio and Delaware are among those needing at least two years of assistance to meet the same threshold.
Another plus is that for more than a quarter-century we have provided free preschool to three- and four-year-old children with disabilities. Most other states limit this service to four-year-olds.
More recently, Kentucky has cracked down on bullying and inappropriate disciplinary actions in schools; set up a task force to look for better ways to help students with dyslexia; and authorized the state’s Office of Autism and the related Advisory Council on Autism Spectrum Disorders, which address a matter dear to my family and me and our community.
One of the challenges we and the rest of the country face is getting more special education teachers in the classroom with the full training they need. Last year, the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services said that half of our country’s schools, and 90 percent of those in regions with high poverty, struggle to get qualified teachers in this area. Special education teachers also leave the profession at twice the normal rate as teachers in general, adding to the dilemma.
The OEA report found that that there are almost 6,500 special-education teachers in Kentucky, but the number of those with a non-standard teaching certificate has risen from about 7.5 percent three years ago to 13 percent today. That’s far higher than the rate for all other teachers, which is less than one percent.
It’s worth noting that special education teachers are not the only ones who interact with these students each school day. There are also 5,500 instructional aides and another 2,200 professionals who work in such areas as speech pathology, therapy and nursing.
In recent years, there has been a growing gap between the money school districts receive for special education services and the actual amount the districts have to spend. Last year, schools had to cover $128 million extra in expenses, nearly 10 times what the figure was in 2004. With state revenues finally returning to more normal growth, that’s a number we can hopefully lower in future budgets.
Overall, there is no doubt that we have come a long way in recent decades when it comes to special education, but we still have a lot of work to do to help these students meet their full potential. We need to make sure that, by the time of the next OEA report, Kentucky has made substantially more progress in closing academic and funding gaps, because our students and those who serve them deserve no less.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.