Families feel impact of special education cuts
August 11, 2016
By: Mackenzie Ryan
When her son, Evan, was an infant, a neurologist told Chelle Bisenius that he would never walk or talk.
But through therapy initiated by one of the state’s area education agencies, Evan slowly made progress, beginning to form words, and then sentences. Therapists helped him develop skills he needed to navigate around school, such as climbing stairs.
But when Evan got into elementary school, some of those services began to taper off, against his parents’ wishes. So they looked to private options, and paid out of pocket.
“Evan’s going to be independent, he’s going to be great,” she said of supplementing his therapy. “But without those things?”
Evan’s case is an example of some Iowa parents’ frustration over what they see as a state agency that at times falls short in its mission to oversee and deliver special education to all the children who need it in public and private schools.
Iowa’s Area Education Agencies system was designed to help children and families access services no matter where they live in Iowa. But budget cuts and service reductions have prompted many Iowa families that have the means to seek private options.
Since 2002, the AEA system sustained legislative budget cuts that leaders said are eroding services. Those reductions now total more than $270 million, when including across-the-board state cuts and repeated reductions beyond the funding formula, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards.
Brent Siegrist,executive director of the Iowa Area Education Agencies, said the cuts have forced the agency to increase caseloads and reduce the frequency or delivery of its services.
Iowa’s private and public school enrollment, which AEAs serve, has grown to more than 510,000 children in K-12 schools. In five years, it’s increased by 8,400 students.
But students with individualized education plans, which determine services for students with disabilities and those in special education, have declined to 59,000 students. In five years, that’s 3,000 fewer students, according to AEA data provided to the Register.
“We have to provide the services,” he said. “When the funding goes down, it’s more difficult.”
For Evan, that meant searching for services elsewhere that required travel and time. Evan was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, which made it difficult to master basic skills. His mother took him to a local hospital twice a week to augment his school-based therapies.
Then Bisenius pulled him from class each week to drive to Sioux Falls, a 260-mile round trip from their home in Ruthven, Ia.
Now, they regularly commute to Ames, a 300-mile round trip.
“There’s a window of opportunity when they’re little. … The AEA was a huge help, but they had their hands tied — they couldn’t provide all the services.”
To counter the funding reductions, district officials say more schools are acting as stopgaps — overspending their special-education budgets and then dipping into their cash reserves or levying local property taxes to cover costs, which they’re allowed to do with state permission.
Five years ago, 57 percent of Iowa districts had special education deficits and sought approval to cover a $34 million difference. Last year, 80 percent of Iowa’s school districts ran special education deficits totaling almost $95 million, according to Iowa Department of Education data.
While families and advocacy groups say they’re thankful for what they receive, others say children are not qualifying for services they need.
“They’re starting to narrow those guidelines, who receives services and who doesn’t,” said Todd Bohnenkamp, the president of the Iowa Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “The feeling is that children who used to be on caseloads now aren’t qualifying.”
Agency leaders deny that. “I would hope that that’s more of a perception than our reality,” said Paula Vincent, chief administrator for the Heartland AEA in Central Iowa. “Our mandates have not changed.”
However, Vincent acknowledged that “we probably are more comprehensive in trying to make sure that we’re the service of last resort, because we have to be.”
Still, she said, “We take the notion of identification really seriously.”
Companies such as True Potential Education, a dyslexic testing and tutoring company in West Des Moines, are starting to fill parent demands for special education services. True Potential, which started two years ago, now serves more than 100 clients.
Co-founder Nina Lorimor-Easley said she grew frustrated with her own children’s struggles to read. Teachers were sympathetic, but attributed her son’s challenges to being a late bloomer.
“No one knew what the problem was,” she said.
It wasn’t until her son was diagnosed with dyslexia and got outside help that he began to make progress, Lorimor-Easley said.
“He just convinced himself he was stupid,” she said. “He was angry, he was frustrated, he was mad. He’s very, very intelligent — but we had to convince him of that.”
Like many of True Potential’s clients, he never qualified for special education, she said. The company routinely services youths who are in the 15th or 20th learning percentile, but who have the potential to be much higher.
Vincent said it’s not unusual for families or teachers to dispute who qualifies for special education. “Sometimes, there are legitimate disagreements,” she said.
Some families would like to see the state widen the net of students who receive support. Decoding Dyslexia Iowa, for example, is advocating at the state level.
“If you make a bigger net, you catch these kids,” said Randy Califf, Decoding Dyslexia’s vice president.
His son, Gabe, receives special education at school. He has also been working with a private tutor in recent years.
“It was really empowering for him,” Califf said of Gabe’s diagnosis, which gave his family a path forward. “He wants to read.”
The impact of AEA service reductions has been felt across the state, particularly in small- to mid-size communities. On the South Dakota border, West Sioux Superintendent Ryan Kramer noticed that occupational and physical therapists seem to be more often taking on the role of a consultant, rather than directly working with students.
With increased caseloads, an occupational therapist may train a teacher or teacher’s assistant on how to practice handwriting with a special education student, for example, and then check back every few weeks.
“They’re scraping by, like the schools are,” Kramer said.
AEA leaders admit that they’ve been forced to cut positions through attrition or layoffs. Since 2012, about 350 positions have been cut, almost 9 percent of full- and part-time staff, according to AEA data.
The majority of AEA agencies “no longer have reserves to weather the storm of unpredictable funding streams, and had to reduce staff,” Vincent said.
Some speech language pathologists can have caseloads surpassing 70 to 80 students, much higher than the national average of 48, Bohnenkamp said. In other cases, services are reduced below recommended levels, with therapies falling from three times a week to once or twice.
“It’s frustrating,” said Kerri Schwemm, a speech language pathologist who served nearly 70 students last school year. While some children responded to group therapy, others didn’t, so she worked to fit one-on-one time into her schedule.
“You have to look at your caseload differently and schedule differently to do what you think is best.”
Schools, too, are stepping up as children are arriving without as much time in early childhood programs that help children with disabilities prepare for school.
“Districts are being burdened to provide services that the AEA has always provided,” said Matt Cretsinger, director of Marshalltown’s special services. “We now have to find a way to do it ourselves.”
Almost 80 percent of school districts in Iowa overspent their special education budget last school year. School districts are allowed to run a deficit to cover special education costs that were not funded, and request to either spend down cash or to raise property taxes to cover the difference.