Anne Boucher, special education teacher at Brewer Community School, reads a book from behind a plexiglass divider to one of her students in 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BSN

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The chronic shortage of child care in Maine has thankfully been getting needed attention recently. The childcare crisis, however, is even more severe for the families of children with disabilities. Spaces in the specialized preschools that care for and educate these young children have been disappearing in Maine because of a lack of funding.

Because Maine does not have universal pre-kindergarten programs, special-purpose preschools provide therapeutic and educational programs to children with behavioral and developmental disabilities between the ages of 3 and 5. The aim is to provide these services to young children so that they can attend K-12 schools in the legally required least restrictive setting and be integrated in public school classrooms.

The Maine Association for Community Service Providers recently conducted a survey of these schools. Twenty-four schools, which serve 600 students, responded. All of them reported having waiting lists and three-quarters have reduced the number of children in their programs. Several programs have closed and others say they may shut their doors. MACS estimates that another 300 children in Maine qualify for but are not receiving these services.

In addition to the pressures facing other schools, such as the difficulty of hiring staff, these programs say the payments they receive are inadequate.

The federal Medicaid program covers therapeutic services and necessary medical support for these students, as it does for K-12 students with disabilities. It does not cover educational expenses. When the children enter K-12 schools, the educational costs are covered through the state’s school funding formula. Towns and the state do not cover the education costs for children in these preschools, despite a federal requirement to do so.

LD 1309 aims to fix the funding problem by aligning the funding practices for K-12 and preschool educational services for children with disabilities. It directs the Child Development Services System, which is part of the Maine Department of Education, to work with the preschools to develop a payment system that covers educational costs.

A representative of the Maine Education Department told members of the Education Committee earlier this month that, while the department did not support or oppose the bill, “it is appropriate to reexamine this payment structure and develop a funding formula that ensures a robust continuum of educational programming for our preschool children.”

Courtney Belolan, the department’s director of policy and government affairs, told lawmakers that additional money would be needed to cover the educational costs. It is unclear how much additional funding is needed.

What is clear is that young children and families rely on the services that these schools provide and that shrinking enrollments and long wait lists put their well-being and readiness for further education in jeopardy.

B.L. Lippert, a teacher and coach at Cony High School in Augusta, told lawmakers about his son, Lincoln, who was diagnosed with autism two weeks prior to his third birthday. He began receiving services at the Children’s Center, in 2018. The center provides a variety of services to children with disabilities and their parents and caregivers. “Through the hard work, love and dedication of his teachers, Lincoln progressed from a child locked in his own world into a child who liked going to school and liked interacting with his teachers and peers,” Lippert said. “… Without this level of instruction, Lincoln would not have been ready for public school.”

“Access to these services are crucial in determining the potential outcomes for our neediest population,” Lippert said.

We are encouraged that the Maine Education Department is working with sponsors of LD 1309 and advocates to find a funding solution to ensure that these children receive the services that they need for a more successful transition to K-12 education and beyond.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...