Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education (ED), published a notice of proposed rulemaking that would amend regulations under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for the purpose of promoting equity. IDEA is a federal law that ensures states and local educational agencies (LEAs) provide services to children with disabilities, which includes early intervention, special education and related services. Previously, states and its LEAs could use federal funds under Part B of IDEA to provide services through Coordinated Early Intervening Services (CEIS) for K-12 students with disabilities. For the first time, ED’s proposed rulemaking would extend eligibility for comprehensive CEIS services under Part B to include preschoolers starting at age three. This proposed update at the federal level speaks to the importance of providing interventions early. Investing in early learning, including early interventions, is a significant component to achieving equity in public education.

The disproportionate rate at which children of color face suspension, expulsion and over-identification for special education has been documented for decades. In 1997, Congress took action on the issue in that year’s IDEA amendments, by requiring states to collect data and determine if a significant disproportionality based on race was occurring. Upon finding a significant disproportionality, Congress subsequently required that states review and appropriately revise policies, practices and procedures. Seven years later, Congress voted in favor of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 to further address misidentification of children of color with disabilities. Four significant components of the act implemented the following: 1. Significant disproportionality would now be measured by ethnicity in addition race; 2. Measurement of significant disproportionality would henceforth include the incidence, duration and type of disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions; 3. Mandatory use of funds for comprehensive CEIS would now be required; and 4. LEAs would now publicly report on revisions to policies, practices and procedures a significant disproportion based on race and ethnicity is found.

A key component to the strategies proffered by ED highlight the impact of investing early. Expanding eligibility for receiving comprehensive CEIS to include children beginning at age three increases state and LEA flexibility. Now, states will have the opportunity to use IDEA Part B funds reserved for CEIS to provide services and supports at earlier ages. Removing children from early learning settings where they are developing critical skills for school and life is disruptive to positive child outcomes, and the proposed regulations aim to bring the number of suspensions and expulsions towards zero. By eliminating removals from high quality early learning environments, extensive special education and the significant costs associated with it won’t be needed at a later date because children will have benefitted from a strong foundation for learning and development in the critical early years.

ED’s prioritization of equity in these proposed regulations builds on the steps Congress has taken over the years to address over-identification of children of color for special education services, in addition to disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates. Both over-identification for special education services and disproportionate suspension/ expulsion rates result in restricting, if not completely removing, a child from general education opportunities and this occurs in the early learning years, as well. It is imperative that schools are equipped to provide children with appropriate educational services, and misidentification interferes with this. Children of color, who as a group are largely over-identified for disabilities, are more likely to be suspended and expelled when compared to their white peers with disabilities. Knowing that suspensions and expulsions are closely linked with negative student outcomes such as lower academic performance, increased dropout rates, future disciplinary actions and even interaction with the juvenile justice system, it is critical to provide strategies that aim to eliminate this school to prison pipeline.

The Department of Education published the proposed regulations on March 2, 2016, which will be available for public comment for 75 days. The proposed regulations can be read in full here.