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State Capitol focus: Special Education in Arkansas public schools

In its weekly report released today, the Arkansas Senate Information Office said that over the past decade, greater numbers of Arkansas children have been diagnosed with a disability. Consequently, Arkansas public schools are spending greater amounts of money on special education.

Last year, there were almost 64,000 students with a diagnosed disability in Arkansas public schools. That is 13.4 percent of the state’s total student enrollment.

Arkansas school districts spent $458 million on special education services, or about $7,382 per pupil with a disability while the equivalent of 3,788 full-time employees worked as special education teachers in Arkansas.

Schools get revenue from local, state and federal sources. The state provides funding for an average of 29 special education teachers for every 500 students enrolled in the district. That comes out to 17 special education to each teacher.

There are 12 categories of disability used to determine a student’s eligibility for special education. They include autism, vision and hearing impairment, speech-language impairment, traumatic brain injury, intellectual disability, and emotional disturbance.

There is a category titled specific learning disability that includes dyslexia and developmental aphasia. It represents the largest category of disability and applies to 31 percent of the students in special education.

About 25 percent have a speech-language impairment, about 12 percent have intellectual disabilities, and about 8 percent receive special education services because they are on the autism spectrum.

Except for the category of children with multiple disabilities, all other categories have shown increases, with autism growing the most over the past few years. The number of students diagnosed with autism has gone up 55 percent since 2013. The increase is attributable to an increased awareness among educators and others of the characteristics of autism.

The growth in children diagnosed with dyslexia has followed a similar trend. In 2014, for example, 957 students received therapy for dyslexia. In that year, only 89 school districts and one charter school reported results from screening for dyslexia.

Last year, 251 school districts and charter schools screened for dyslexia and more than 23,000 children received therapy.

Act 1294 of 2013 required districts to screen every student in kindergarten through second grade for dyslexia.

Just like all other students, children with disabilities must take standardized tests like the ACT Aspire. Last year 12.2 percent of students with disabilities scored at the “ready” or “exceeding” level in math. That compared to 52.5 percent of students without disabilities.

Last year legislators worked on changes to a category of special education known as high-cost or catastrophic occurrences. They happen when services for an individual student are extraordinarily higher than what is regularly provided in state funding categories.

In the 2019 regular session, the legislature approved Act 877 to appropriate $13.2 million for special education high-cost occurrences.

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