Fewer Mississippi children participate in special education services for young children than the national average, according to a new report.
The report found that participation increases with state median income.
The National Institute for Early Education Research published a report Tuesday evaluating the state of services for children with disabilities, particularly the federal programs known as Early Intervention, for children under three, and Early Childhood Special Education, for children ages 3-5. The report uses data from the 2020-21 school year to focus on inequities in the availability of these services by race and state.
Children are often referred to these programs when they show delays or difficulties during developmental screenings performed by pediatricians or child care centers. Mississippi has historically had a low rate of developmental screenings, but now ranks 33rd nationally due to investment from a federal grant. Research shows intervention improves outcomes and is more effective the earlier it is delivered.
In the 2020-21 school year, 1.5% of Mississippi kids received services through the under three program, while 3.2% did nationally. For children ages 3-5, 4.4% of Mississippi kids received services compared to 5.2% nationally.
The report found a correlation between state median income and participation in these services, both of which were low for Mississippi. Experts attributed this pattern to health care access and state policy choices.
“Those families that either don’t have health care or don’t have transportation to get to health care are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to accessing early intervention programs,” said Katy Neas, deputy assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Education. “Having done some work in your state, the lack of providers in places outside of Jackson is really quite profound.”
Neas added that local Head Starts provide a high-quality experience for young children with disabilities, helping to address the gap in options.
Steve Barnett, co-director of the institute, also pointed out that some other states with low median incomes face similar challenges but have much higher enrollment, naming New Mexico and West Virginia as examples. He said these differences in state policy are one of the reasons they recommend convening state leaders to share ideas.
The report also found when children in Mississippi finish the under three program, many are not being screened to see if they are eligible for the 3 to 5-year-old program. Neas said she believes a lack of collaboration between state agencies can lead to this issue; in Mississippi, the under three program is operated by the Mississippi Department of Health, while the 3-5 program is operated by local school districts. Nearly 40% of Mississippi children in the younger program were not evaluated for the older one. About 20% of kids in the under three program were evaluated and found to be eligible for the 3-5 program. Nationally, these numbers are nearly reversed.
“… If kids have the audacity to turn three at a time other than the beginning of the school year, sometimes the transition can be sub-optimal,” said Neas.
She added that this transition is a point of focus for the U.S. Department of Education.
The report also highlights racial disparities in the children receiving services, with white children having higher rates of enrollment nationally than Black or Hispanic children, a pattern that largely holds true in Mississippi.
There are also racial differences in the disabilities students are enrolled to address. In the program for students aged 3-5, significantly more white children in Mississippi are enrolled for speech or language impairments than developmental delays. For Black children, there is a nearly equal distribution of kids between the two categories.
States are required to measure children who participate in these programs using three goals: positive social-emotional skills; acquisition and use of knowledge and skills; and use of appropriate behaviors to meet their needs. In Mississippi, about 50% of children met these goals for the under three program, and closer to 70% of kids met them by the end of the 3 to 5-year-old program.
The report authors did not offer specific policy suggestions to address these disparities, save additional federal funding, and instead called on the federal government to convene a national commission to study the issues and share best practices among states.
On the press call, Neas emphasized struggles with adequate staffing for these programs and child care centers more broadly as an area that needs attention.