Individuals with Disabilities Education Act:

Education Should Provide Additional Guidance to Help States Smoothly Transition Children to Preschool

GAO-06-26: Published: Dec 14, 2005. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2005.

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Cornelia M. Ashby
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Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was established to ensure that infants and toddlers with disabilities, from birth to age 3, and their families receive appropriate early intervention services. Within the Department of Education (Education), the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) is responsible for awarding and monitoring grants to states for Part C according to IDEA requirements. To address questions about how states have implemented IDEA Part C, this report provides information on (1) how Part C programs differ in their eligibility criteria and whom they serve, (2) to what extent states differ in their provision of services and funding, and (3) how Education and state lead agencies help support and oversee efforts to implement Part C, such as identifying children for services and transitioning children to follow-on programs, such as IDEA Part B.

Eligibility criteria for Part C services for infants and toddlers with disabilities differ from state to state, but do not consistently explain the percentage of children served, which ranges between 1.3 and 7.1 percent. To determine eligibility, most states measure how much the child is delayed in one or more areas of early childhood development, while a few rely exclusively on a clinical team's judgment. Although IDEA Part C is intended to cover children from birth to age 3, most states provide the majority of their Part C services to children 2 to 3 years old. States have public awareness campaigns to identify more eligible infants and toddlers but cite a number of obstacles, including difficulty reaching children in rural areas or in families where English is a second language. The states we visited provide a similar set of services but vary in funding sources. States are required to make available certain early intervention services under IDEA, such as occupational, physical, and speech therapy. However, states report challenges recruiting and retaining professionals, such as speech language pathologists, to provide these services. States rely on various funding sources, but state general revenue funds were generally the largest source of early intervention funding. OSEP and state lead agencies have provided training and technical assistance and used data to monitor implementation of IDEA Part C, but OSEP has lacked some information from local officials needed to determine if children are smoothly transitioning from Part C to Part B. OSEP uses annual reports and performance indicators as part of its effort to monitor compliance with Part C and target technical assistance. For example, data on the percentage of children served help inform OSEP of states' efforts to identify all eligible children. States use similar approaches. Despite these activities, state officials cited challenges transitioning children to Part B services when they turn 3 years old. Education indicated that in preliminary and unpublished data from an ongoing study it had found that gaps occur throughout the year. Officials in the states we visited reported that some children who turn 3 during the summer experience gaps in service. If Part B eligibility is not determined prior to children turning 3 during the summer, then subsequent decisions about whether children should receive extended school year services cannot be made.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center includes several items on its Transition Initiative website designed to supports states' capacity to address transition issues, implement improvement activities, and demonstrate progress in meeting the requirements of the State Performance Plan (SPP) and Annual Performance Reports (APR) for the Early Childhood Transition Indicators C8 and B12. The website includes products and information on technical assistance activities. For example, the website includes a framework and tool for states to analyze their transition system infrastructure and systematically identify improvement strategies to improve local implementation of the transition requirements of the IDEA.

    Recommendation: In order to assist states in providing a more seamless transition for children with disabilities from IDEA Part C to Part B, or other preschool programs, the Secretary of Education should provide states with additional guidance on transition planning and services for children with birthdays during the summer, and especially in cases where children are likely to need extended school year services.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education reports that preliminary findings from the Pre-Elementary Education Longitudinal Study (PEELS), funded by the National Center for Special Education Research in the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, indicate that gaps between infant and toddler and preschool services have been common, affecting about a third of children, and have averaged slightly less than 5 months in duration. In response to these and other findings, Education is supporting an Early Childhood Transition Initiative to provide technical assistance (TA), to states to ensure young children and their families experience a timely and smooth transition from Part C to Part B services. The Initiative hosts a website that includes planning tools and information about IDEA requirements, and webinars.

    Recommendation: After Education completes and verifies the results from its ongoing studies relating to transitioning, that information should be used to inform the department's guidance to states on transition planning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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