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CALIFORNIA: No one knows "exactly why" so many more kids have special needs

Nov 24, 2019, Stock Daily Dish: Special education enrollment in California is up. No one can say exactly why Neda Raheem is a 34-year-old mother of twin boys and a physician assistant. Her boys seemed normal and healthy at first, but when they were 14 months old, doctors sensed they might have a condition. The boys were diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy. Three months into preschool, the family moved from West Sacramento to Elk Grove in part because the schools offer more options for special education students. It’s the type of decision parents across the Central Valley are facing with increasing regularity, as autism diagnoses soar and parents seek classrooms with better options for their children. Special education enrollment has surged in the last decade, with more than 96,000 students pouring into school districts across the state, according to data from the California Department of Education. One of the drivers has been a marked increase in students with autism and other behavioral delays, a Bee analysis shows. At the same time, the number of students with other disabilities grew modestly or decreased between the 2009 and 2018 school years. Although the trend is undeniable, no one can say exactly why it’s happening. …Outpacing population growth, the surge has put pressure on some school district budgets and administrative support systems in the Central Valley and beyond. State and federal funding have not kept up with the shift in special education enrollment, forcing school districts from Sacramento to Fresno to dig deeper into their general funds to pay as the number of students swells…. “It’s the concentration of students within that number and that’s where it’s affected a lot of schools because services for students with autism can be very expensive.” The increased prevalence of autism has been a medical mystery for years. Awareness has grown, experts say. Teachers are trained to recognize the disorder. And in 2013, the medical definition of autism was changed, grouping a number of conditions like Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive development disorder under the umbrella of autism. Recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder jumped 16 percent between 2012 and 2014. Although the medical and education definitions are not the same, California schools saw an 18 percent increase in autism enrollment for the same period. But organizations like the MIND Institute at UC Davis have been working to bring the two definitions closer together by training teachers and other professionals to identify the symptoms. “The increase isn’t just in California but it is nationwide, probably worldwide,” said Aubyn Stahmer, who oversees community treatment research at the MIND Institute. “The diagnostic definitions have broadened a little bit and that explains some of it and awareness has really increased quite a bit.” Funding challenge In requiring school districts to offer special education, the federal government agreed to pay about 40 percent of the per student cost. Hoffman said the reality has often been much less, between 12 and 15 percent of the cost…. Kalpakoff sees an upside in the increase. If there are more students being diagnosed, she said it shows the school system must be doing a good job identifying children in need. … “We are having to do more to recruit teachers, and in some cases, we are helping to cover the cost of credentialing current staff interested in becoming special education teachers.”…


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