Money problems hurt worthy program

Infants and toddlers: State can't meet its financial obligations, but should promise to do better.

March 06, 2002

Great cause, wrong year.

It's a phrase being uttered quite a bit in Annapolis this year, as legislators consider bills that seek state money for worthy aims, and then catch a glimpse of the red ink pooling around the budget's bottom line.

There's simply not enough money to fund every program that needs or deserves it and keep the state out of hock. The result: Many state-funded programs will have to settle for symbolic victories in Annapolis this year. Commitments in principle from legislators that will be fully funded when cash is more plentiful. Small down payments on future large allocations.

So it should be for the state's early intervention program for disabled children under 3.

This federally and state-mandated program has subsisted on meager state funding for years, relying instead on federal and local dollars to serve more than 8,000 youngsters at a cost of $24 million.

A bill scheduled for consideration today by a Senate committee would boost the state's contribution from $400,000 annually to $5 million. There's no question of the need for the money; the number of children being served by the program grows each year. And there's no question of the state's obligation to provide more funding.

But that kind of bump won't be approved, thanks to the tight budget and poor legislative planning. Program advocates should instead focus on the achievable: securing a legislative acknowledgement of the state's failure to provide enough funding, and a pledge to do more in better times.

An ideal outcome? Not by far. But it's likely the best that can be done this year.

The state's neglect of the early intervention program is longstanding, and indicative of the kind of oversights that perpetuate harmful gaps in Maryland's efforts to enhance early education. Even if these services weren't mandated by law, wouldn't common sense suggest that it makes sense to address children's disabilities early?

The program's success - despite inadequate funding - also makes a strong case for additional support. The program provides educational and therapeutic services to children diagnosed with physical or mental disabilities - before they show up in school. The idea is to minimize the impact of the disability on a child's learning potential and, if possible, keep children out of expensive, long-term special education programs once they get to school.

Parents and advocates tell story after story about children who have had more productive educational experiences because of the services - kids who are functional and even independent, despite their limitations.

And since the program began in the early 1990s, a remarkable 24 percent of its participants have gone on to school without continued special education. That alone is saving local school districts and state and local governments millions of dollars in costly services.

The local success only confirms what national studies show - that early intervention makes a difference with at-risk children, whether the risk is poverty, disability, or both. It also fits nicely into statewide efforts to expand other early education efforts, such as all-day kindergarten and preschool for at-risk children.

Unfortunately, the state's small contribution is forcing delays in identification and delivery of services to eligible children. The danger, if funding is not increased, is that Maryland could fall out of compliance with the federal requirements to provide these services, and begin to lose money from Washington for the program.

Legislators can't allow that to happen. They don't need to bump funding all the way to $5 million, but they certainly should commit more than $400,000 and formalize a plan to work toward the higher number. They can also formalize the program's existence as part of the Department of Education; until now, it has straddled two departments, with funding authority existing separately from administration of the program.

Amendments to the current bill will be necessary to achieve both goals.

In any other year, the General Assembly would have no excuse to deny money to this program or the children it serves. This year, lawmakers will have no excuse if they don't at least try to do better.

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