By Amanda Litvinov
When Danny (not his real name) arrived in Christine Preston’s classroom, she was told that his previous school district had determined that the teenager would never learn to read, write or do even the simplest calculations.
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“They basically wanted to send him home and let him collect a check,” said Preston, who teaches at East Stroudsburg High School in Pennsylvania. “We didn’t accept that. My aide and I worked as much as we could with this young man, and he was eventually accepted into a technical-vocational school and became a trained diesel mechanic.”
“Now he’s working through a program to repair Humvees at the local army depot. So he will have this specialized skill and he’s already a worker and a taxpayer.”
But Preston says that Danny could have just as easily slipped through the cracks if he’d ended up in a classroom with a greater number of high-needs students and no aides. She’s one of many special education professionals speaking out to say if Congress enacts further cuts to federal education spending, students’ futures will suffer.
If Congress doesn’t pass a budget deal before the end of the year, 8 percent, across-the-board cuts for fiscal year 2013 go into effect on Jan. 2, hacking nearly $1 billion from IDEA, the bundle of federal programs meant to address the unique needs of the nation’s special education students. Federal education spending overall would decrease by $5 billion.
“Those cuts could truly mean the difference between us helping students become productive members of society versus someone who is a drain on society. And that’s aside from the moral issues,” said Preston.
“When I first started teaching, I had around eight students per class, and there was often an aide there. Recently I’ve had classes of 17 with no aide. They think they’re saving now? The costs are going to be astronomical later on.”
Anita Jackson, who taught special needs students in Virginia for 30 years, has witnessed first-hand how budget cuts affect the services schools are able to provide. “When it comes to special education, personnel is needed to provide individualized aid—all of that is crucial.”
She says cutting upwards of 13,400 special education jobs—the number that will be lost if the across-the-board cuts go into effect—is unconscionable.
“When school funding is cut, it could be the decision that makes or breaks a child’s progress,” said Jackson, who is now a library tech in a middle school. “It’s going to cost America in the long run to go cheap on public education.”
The Republican budget proposal unveiled last week would likely pose “significant risks to investments” in education, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. CBPP Preisdent Robert Greenstein deemed the plan’s revenues as inadequate, and concluded that it amounts to “an attempt to lock in a requirement for deep cuts in programs on which tens of millions of Americans of modest means rely, without coming clean on the nature and severity of the cuts that would be required.”
In fall 2011, educators were rooting for the passage of the IDEA Full Funding Act, which aimed to fulfill the promise Congress had made 36 years earlier to fund 40 percent of the costs of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Outside of the historic infusion of money through President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, IDEA has never been funded at even 20 percent.
But the IDEA Full Funding Act was never passed. Now, just a year later, educators are pleading with lawmakers not to deal special education another devastating blow.
“In our district we’ve seriously considered going to a four-day workweek, and I’m not convinced that’s the best thing for my students,” says Vicki Zasadny, a special education teacher at Bonner Springs Elementary in Kansas, who has 35 years’ experience. “But if they continue to cut the funding to our district, we have absolutely no choice but to make decisions that will affect students.”
“They’ve already cut the hours of our three special education paraprofessionals by 12.5 percent, so instead of working an 8-hour day, they now work a 7-hour day. Any further cuts mean there’s a pretty good chance that at the end of this year, we’ll lose one of them,” Zasadny lamented.
If that happens, the special education team will have to focus only on the most severely disabled, as they will no longer have the capacity to go into the general classroom to give extra assistance to students who can achieve there, but only with extra help.
Andrew Benton, who has been a paraprofessional for five years and works with Zasadny, says one of the problems with having fewer paraeducators present at the end of the day is that students get less help preparing for the transition from school to home.
It has also affected him personally.
“I’m trying to go to school to earn my teaching degree,” said Benton. “I had to take a break last semester, but fortunately I qualified for a partial Pell grant for this year so I could go back again.” Some of his colleagues have taken on part-time work, but Benton has had trouble finding a job that would fit around his school hours.
“In some communities they pass special measures for additional education funding when other sources are cut, but that’s not going to happen here,” said Zasadny. “Ours is not an advantaged community.”
Christine Preston said her Pennsylvania community suffers from a high foreclosure rate, and she has seen more students at her school forced into inadequate housing and struggling to find medical care. Gone are the days when the district gave school nurses vouchers for students to get eyeglasses.
“It’s my fear that even aside from meeting their basic needs, if special needs students are in larger classes where there’s less support, they’re going to say ‘to heck with it’ and drop out. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish if we cut education spending and end up with more people who can’t take care of themselves, when if we had invested in their education they could be independent and working,” said Preston.
“It would be nice to just wave a magic wand, but we can’t do everything.”