By Johnny Jackson
Georgia's school systems may soon have twice as much money for special education programs as they traditionally get.
According to the Georgia Department of Education, the state's school systems, which received more than $300 million from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) federal grant program this year, could receive an additional $310 million in IDEA funds, as a result of this year's federal stimulus package.
"This is monumental," said Philip Mellor, special education executive director for the Henry County School System. "For years, IDEA has been under-funded," he said. "This is an unprecedented level of funding from the federal government."
Systems should know, within the next few weeks, exactly how much their respective special education departments will receive in additional funding.
In Clayton County, the funds have traditionally been used to support staff, equipment, professional development, the extended school year, transportation, and service delivery for students with disabilities.
"Without these grants, we would see limited resources available for students with disabilities," said John Lyles, spokesman for the Clayton County School System.
In years past, Clayton has received roughly $8 million annually to fund its special education programs, and is budgeting to spend the same amount next school year.
Mellor, who also is the president-elect of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, said the added IDEA funding should afford systems enough resources to improve on their existing programs over the next two years.
He said Henry would likely use the funds to increase professional learning (learning by way of seminars and on-the-job training) for its special education, para-professional, teacher assistants.
School systems receive special education funding from various sources, including local tax dollars and from state and federal grants. Special education is mainly funded, however, through the state's Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula, with supplemental funding coming from IDEA grants.
In order to receive the grants, school systems must go through a process in which they submit to the state, their plans for spending the money. The state, in turn, submits those plans collectively, in what is known as a consolidated application process.
According to Mellor, about 85-95 percent of funding from IDEA is used to pay for the salaries of teachers, para-professional, teacher assistants, educational specialists, and some school nurses who work with students with disabilities.
Some 4,000 students with disabilities are served annually in Henry, where the most disabilities are characterized as speech and language impairments; learning disabilities, such as dyslexia; mild intellectual disabilities, and emotional and behavioral problems.
Mellor said that Henry's greatest needs are providing the students with inclusive services and math support. Inclusive services are those which integrate students with disabilities into regular classrooms with the aid of co-teachers and teacher assistants. Math support is an additional class that supplements the existing curriculum.
Mellor said the move to involve students with disabilities in regular-classroom settings is a research-based attempt to improve the overall academic performance of students in state and national assessments.
"I'm an advocate for students with disabilities and their families," he said. "We want them to be able to compete globally as well, and many of them can. The heart of this is how we're going to help students with disability to be successful."
In order to continue to receive that funding, the state must publicly post its annual state application for IDEA grants for 60 days. The state must also have a 30-day public comment window, which begins April 1.
Written comments may be sent to Nancy O'Hara, the state's division for special education services director, by mail at: 1870 Twin Towers East, Atlanta, Ga. 30334. Or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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