Today, December 2, is National Special Education Day, marking the anniversary of President Gerald Ford’s signing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As we reflect on the important ways in which IDEA has changed our public education system, I want to call attention to an important and often overlooked component of the early childhood landscape: special education preschools.
Under Section 619 of IDEA Part B, children ages 3-5 identified with disabilities have a right to a free, appropriate, public education. This means that school districts have an obligation to provide preschool services to children diagnosed with disabilities. Currently, approximately 462,383 children with disabilities are served in special education preschool nationally, meaning that special education serves more children than any single state preschool program, roughly half as many preschoolers as Head Start, and nearly 1/3 as many children as all state-funded pre-K programs combined.
Beyond the number of children directly served, special education preschool influences our national early childhood care and education system in a variety of ways. Preschool special education pre-dates the growth of state-funded pre-K, and until relatively recently, most licensed early childhood teachers working in public schools were special education preschool teachers.
As a result, licensing and preparation programs for birth-5 or early childhood teachers in many states are designed primarily to prepare special educators. At the state level, early childhood specialists in state departments of education have played important roles in state pre-K and early learning systems coordination over the past 25 years, but many of these roles were originally created to support and oversee preschool special education — which remains a major part of these system leaders’ portfolios.
And at the federal level, the Office of Special Education Programs funds training and technical assistance for special education preschool and has developed or supported the dissemination of resources, models, and approaches — such as the Pyramid Model — that support quality teaching and child development across a variety of early childhood settings.
In other words, special education preschool is a pretty big deal. Yet it’s largely overlooked in national conversations about early childhood care and education. Continue reading