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Massachusetts provides highest rate of special education support to young kids, report says

Books, toys and educational materials line the walls of Brown Bear Excel Early Learning Center, a home-based day care center in Hyde Park. A report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research found that Massachusetts provides early support services to children under 3 years old at a higher rate than most other states in the country.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

Massachusetts provides early support services to children under 3 years old at the highest rate in the country, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The report, which analyzed data from the fall of 2020, found that the state provided early support programming for 10 percent of its infants and toddlers under 3, while just over 3 percent of children in that age group nationwide received such services. Massachusetts is the leader among only six states that provide early support to more than 5 percent of children under 3, according to the report.

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During a press briefing on Tuesday, the report’s authors said that differences in how the need for intervention is defined is one of the reasons why there are variations among states.

Massachusetts, for example, broadly defines early intervention as a program for children 3 or under who have or are at risk of a developmental delay and any family is eligible for services if their child is not “reaching age-appropriate milestones,” diagnosed with certain conditions, and has a medical history that could put the child “at risk” of a developmental delay.

“Under the early intervention program, states set their own eligibility criteria,” said Katherine Neas, deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the US Department of Education. “That’s why you will see some states like Massachusetts, which serve kids at risk of a developmental delay, serving a larger number and larger proportion of students under the age of 3. Then some states will have a more restrictive definition.”

The report also highlighted inequities in access different racial groups have to early intervention and early childhood special education for children prior to entering kindergarten.

Black, Latino, and Asian children nationwide were found less likely to receive both early interventions and early childhood special education services than their white peers: 5.4 percent of white children received early childhood special education services compared to 5.2 percent of Latino children, 4.6 percent of Black children, and 3.9 percent of Asian children.

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Additionally, the report found that thousands of young children with developmental delays nationwide went without services within the first year of the pandemic. Between fall of 2019 and fall of 2020, the number of children under 3 that received early intervention dropped by 63,000. Meanwhile, 77,000 fewer 3- and -4-year-olds received early childhood special education.

The report authors suggested that the federal government convene a national commission to address the inequities in access to early support, and recommended an increase in federal funding for early childhood special education services “to equalize access.”

“Access to [early intervention] and [early childhood special education] is vitally important for young children with disabilities and their families. Racial disparities in services — particularly lower rates of participation for Black children — should be ringing alarm bells across the nation,” Steven Barnett, NIEER co-director and education professor a Rutgers University, said in a statement. “The federal government should immediately act to create and convene a national commission bringing together state leaders to develop policy and practice solutions based on the best examples from the states.”


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.