In this Jan. 11, 2021, file photo, preschool teacher Erin Berry greets students as they walk into Dawes Elementary School in Chicago. Credit: Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Chicago Sun-Times via AP

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B.L. Lippert is a teacher and coach in Augusta.

I am blessed to be the father of two boys. In my circles, I’m often just called “Lincoln’s dad.”

Around age 2, Lincoln started to show signs of regression in his development. For seemingly no reason, he lost his ability to speak, smile and even laugh. 

The connections we had been building for the first 24 months of his life began disappearing quicker than we could understand. He didn’t respond to his name, didn’t want to be held and more or less wanted to be left alone. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that we needed help.

After a grueling nine-month evaluation period, which consisted of almost a dozen meetings and hours of observations, Lincoln was ultimately diagnosed with autism. It was two weeks before his third birthday.

That is a day that I will never forget. Our family was devastated beyond belief. It’s simply impossible to articulate how life-altering that news is, unless you have lived it, and I sincerely hope that you haven’t and won’t. I knew that autism diagnosis would forever change Lincoln’s life, and by association, ours.

Despite the fog of fear that had enveloped us, we immediately sprung into action to try to find solutions. In short order, we met with the Children’s Center in Augusta, and Lincoln began receiving services there in 2018. 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. 

At the Children’s Center, Lincoln received speech and occupational therapy and also an intense specialized curriculum. He was exposed to letter sounds, phonetic awareness, decoding of words and daily living skills. Without this level of instruction, Lincoln would not have been ready for public school.  

I am thrilled to tell you that Lincoln did, in fact, make a smooth transition to kindergarten here in Augusta, where he currently is in third grade. We can’t know what Lincoln’s life would be like today if it wasn’t for the emotional and educational care he received at the Children’s Center.  

Right now, schools across the state that provide educational services to children like Lincoln are facing a funding cliff. Many are at risk of closing or reducing the number of children they can serve. It’s a catastrophe in the making.

Access to these services is crucial in determining the potential outcomes for our neediest population. Early intervention is known to provide the best opportunity for positive outcomes for those with autism and other developmental delays. 

LD 1309, An Act to Clarify Requirements for Payment of Tuition for Children with Disabilities by the Department of Education’s Child Development Services System, would help to protect as many as 600 slots for young children who aren’t neurotypical by fixing a flawed funding formula. There was a public hearing before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs on April 13 and the support for the bill was incredible.

It is imperative that red tape and a maze of bureaucratic challenges don’t divert us from the essence of education. 

I realize educational policy can get bogged down by politics about funding, but my experiences with Lincoln left me holding onto one universal truth that transcends all politics: No special needs child should ever be denied services or opportunities due to a lack of funding. No one. 

For families like mine, these preschools are life-changing, and there’s simply no argument that they don’t help children like my son live their lives to their fullest potential.