Wait lists for special education double for low-income students
TheStar.com – parentcentral.ca/parent/education
June 1, 2011. Kristin Rushowy, Education Reporter
Schools in low-income neighbourhoods in Ontario have waiting lists for special education services that are twice as long as those in more affluent schools, and the help those students receive is more likely to be inadequate, says an Ontario-wide report to be released Wednesday.
“The average number of children on special education waiting lists in high poverty schools (10) is more than double the average number of children (4) per low poverty school,” says the study by People for Education, a research and advocacy group that for the first time compared special education services and school demographics.
“And 28 per cent of high poverty schools report they have identified students who are not receiving the recommended support, again, double the percentage of low poverty schools.”
Annie Kidder, the group’s executive director, said the findings are troubling given public education is supposed to be equitable.
“Waiting lists for special education are hugely problematic,” she said. “Ten sounds like a small number of students to have on a waiting list, but when you multiply that by the number of schools in Ontario, it’s significant.”
As for reasons why the wait lists would be longer, and the services often inadequate, Kidder said it’s a “worrying possibility” that parents in more affluent areas “may have a higher level of comfort with the system that allows them to advocate for their kids” or even pay out-of-pocket for private assessments.
However, the numbers show that while Toronto schools — public, Catholic and French — have the most low-income students, their wait lists were no longer than others across the province.
“They seem to be addressing this, it seems to be working better in some way,” she added.
People for Education also found, through a freedom-of-information request, that almost all Ontario’s school boards — 67 of 72 — are spending, in total, $174 million more on special education than the province provides, with five of the biggest boards at more than $10 million each.
Janet McDougald, chair of the Peel District School board, said special education costs at her board run about $16 million more.
That’s in part because the province is using outdated census figures to establish most of the funding, McDougald said.
The board has experienced an enrolment boom in recent years, with many newcomers, and funding simply hasn’t matched needs. Peel’s own figures show that, on a per-capita basis, it receives the least special education funding in Ontario.
“This is obviously disturbing for us,” said McDougald. “And also a little surprising, considering the growth we’ve experienced.”
Among the more pressing issues the board faces is children’s mental health. McDougald is hoping the board will find the resources to hire someone to work with schools and help coordinate treatment with community agencies.
“We are seeing children with depression and those kinds of mental health issues as young as four years old,” she said.
Her concerns echo those of a growing number of educators; a new network of 26 provincial health and other groups including hospitals, school boards, student groups and children’s aid societies, calls mental health the number one issue in schools today. The Coalition for Children and Youth Mental Health will hold a summit Thursday in Toronto to swap ideas for how better to serve children struggling with mental health issues.
“It is just not acceptable to have 1 in 6 young people with no access to the help they need, and schools have an important role to play,” said Catherine Fife, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.
Mike Feenstra, spokesperson for Education Minister Leona Dombrowky, said the province has been spending more on special education and is working with school boards to ensure student needs are met.
“Since 2003, we have increased special education funding provided through the Special Education Grant (SEG) by over 55 per cent, to a provincial total of $2.52 billion in 2011-12. We are continuing to work with our partners to ensure that special education funding reflects the needs of students,” he said.
The People for Education report notes that there have been some improvements in special education: funding has doubled (after major cuts about a decade ago), as well as shorter wait lists overall.
However, “serious concerns remain about the way funding is allocated, and the adequacy and effectiveness of that funding,” especially when some boards report that 25 per cent of students require special education services, and other boards just 5 per cent.
With files from Louise Brown
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