by Colleen Flaherty
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Denise Specht, elementary school teacher and Education Minnesota president, met with educators and students Friday for a round table discussion on the importance of increased federal funding for special education.
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“There are a lot of champions for early childhood education, but every superintendent, Education Minnesota … everybody has said the most important thing is to fund special ed,” Kline said. “We’re mounting an effort to try to build support for starting that funding back up because I do believe absolutely that it is the most important thing.”
The discussion is particularly relevant as the U.S. House recently proposed a bill that would fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for the first time in 40 years.
Joanne Olson has been a special education teacher in Northfield, Minnesota for 28 years and has seen a lot of changes in her classroom.
“Our building is seeing an influx of emotional behavior disorders. There is not enough staff, so kids are being shuttled between caseloads,” said Olson.
One of her major concerns focused on the growing paperwork and assessment that takes away time from her students. She spends nights and weekends keeping up with the required paperwork.
“Each student assessment under IDEA is two and a half hours away from direct instruction,” said Olson. She told Congressman Kline that with additional IDEA funding, they could at least have adequate staff to deal with the time-consuming student evaluations so she could prioritize time in the classroom with her students.
“As we’ve been doing legislation, one of the guiding principles is to streamline and simplify and get rid of as much paperwork as we can,” Kline said. “That’s just not for special ed, but it’s all over the place. Nobody takes any paperwork away, they just add.”
As a social worker at Sibley Elementary School, Noreen Cooney detailed the challenges educators face with mental health issues, as well as her own challenges dealing with students from special education and general education classrooms.
“The variety of mental health is very different than when I started 13 years ago,” said Cooney. “It’s a family issue. As families are facing financial and economic issues, it spills into the classroom.”
She ran through a typical day in her job where she struggles to keep up with the needs of the many students with needed support. While she tries to meet with special needs students, kids with emotional behavior issues, work on getting diagnosis—which is difficult with a 6 to 12 month wait list for mental health assessments—so they can get the help they require, all while trying to facilitate between students and their families.
“This can’t all be met with only one support staff for a building of 500 students,” said Cooney.
Brenda Kragseth spoke about being a parent of a special needs child in a school district that was able to provide quality instruction that led to her son Calvin’s success, something that Kragseth says IDEA should be able to provide for all special needs students.
“I asked Cal what it would be like without special education and he said he would not have achieved as much as he has academically and socially had he not had the supports,” said Kragseth. “Northfield [Calvin’s school] embodies the goals of IDEA.”
As Kline and his colleagues push to fund special education at a federal level, he said that advocates need to share their stories about what adequate funding can do for students. “We’re going to tell Joanne’s story 50 times.”