Education Equality Task Force

Presentation by the Ontario Association for Families of
Children with Communication Disorders (OAFCCD)
September 25, 2002

Introduction:

The Ontario Association for Families of Children with Communication Disorders (OAFCCD) was founded in 1994 by families and professionals concerned about the lack of understanding about the needs of children with speech and language disorders.  In particular, OAFCCD members were concerned about the number of publicly funded agencies that were considering eliminating speech and language pathology services for children. There was a general lack of understanding about the impact of communication disorders and the role of the speech - language pathologist.

The ability to communicate is one of the defining characteristics of humans.  The ability to communicate effectively is an essential skill in modern society.  Children who have communication impairments are at a disadvantage in every way, including their ability to be educated, to be involved in community activities, and to participate in society.

Schools are the only universally accessible place where children with communication disorders can be identified and provided with intervention services.    Treatment, integrated into their educational program, furthers the mission of education to prepare our children for life.

Classroom teachers consistently identify their greatest classroom challenges as children who have difficulty with development of literacy skills and those with social behavioural difficulties. These are primary areas of concern for children with communication disorders and are amenable to change with professional intervention.  There is strong evidence that small group programs developed by Speech-Language Pathologists, and joint programming delivered by teachers and Speech-Language Pathologists are very effective.

The cost of speech and language services is relatively low, as even in relatively well serviced boards,  less than one half of one per cent of total budget is expended to provide services to 4 - 5% of children.  Unfortunately, the current funding model does not provide adequate funds for speech and language services and many students with communication disorders or delays are unable to get the services they need..

Communication Disorders:

Communication disorders, which includes speech and language disorders, are the largest disabling conditions in society affecting 5-10% of the general population.  Speech disorders may involve saying sounds incorrectly, stuttering or voice difficulties.  Language disorders involve difficulties in understanding and expressing thoughts in correct sentences.  Children with speech and/or language impairments will often have difficulty learning to read and write.

There is clear evidence that speech and language intervention is effective and the earlier the treatment is begun, the better the result.  The Ontario government has demonstrated their commitment to early intervention through the Preschool Speech and Language Initiative.  This program is now providing service to over 50,000 children.

Most of these children will need services to be continued after they start school.  In addition, many more school age children will be identified as having a language disorder as they progress through school and the language demands of the curriculum increase.  In particular, children with language disorders may have difficulties at Grade 2 & 3, when the child is learning to read, at Grade 5, when the child is expected to read for content and write in a conventional manner, and Grade 9, when the secondary  school curriculum is delivered primarily through the listening mode.  Students with language disorders also have difficulties with social relationships and may have behaviour problems which lead to suspensions and criminal behaviour.

Professional intervention can make a big difference.  Students who get help are more likely to feel better about themselves, get along well with others, be more independent, read better, stay in school, and be employed.   Without help, children are more likely to develop behaviour problems, be in trouble with the law, end up on welfare, and have poor relationships with others.

Since the early 1990's OAFCCD members have been making presentations to school boards about the need to maintain and expand speech and language services and OAFCCD has developed a number of support documents in support of this position.  (See attached OAFCCD position papers).  School board staff and Trustees responded to the presentations by saying that they had no mandate to provide the services and that they did not have adequate funding to provide services that were not mandated.

In response to these concerns by the school boards, OAFCCD representatives have participated in numerous consultations with the Ministry of Education regarding the delivery of speech and language services (Review of Policy/Program Memorandum 81, Volunteer Resource Group for Speech and Language Exceptionality and for Multiple Exceptionality, and the Co-ordinated Services Advisory Committee).  It is the position of OAFCCD that speech and language services are essential to student success and that services should be mandated by the Ministry of Education and adequately funded.  Based on a review of the literature and practice in other jurisdictions, OAFCCD recommends that school boards be funded to provide Speech -Language Pathologists at a ratio of one Speech - Language Pathologist for every 1500 students.

Given the belief that Speech and Language services should be mandated and adequately funded, OAFCCD members were initially optimistic when the Education Funding Formula was introduced in 1998.  In particular, the protected funding for special education was seen as an important step forward.  In addition, Speech-Language Pathologists were specifically identified as professionals that could be funded through the Professional/Para-Professional line for the Foundation Grant.  Our optimism appeared to be well founded as the number of boards employing Speech - Language Pathologists increased significantly between 1998 and 2000.  (See attached surveys by the School Services Committee of the Ontario Association for Speech - Language Pathologists and Audiologists (OSLA) in 1998 and 2001) In addition the total number of SLPs employed by school boards has increased across the province.

Unfortunately, many of these gains have been jeopardized in the last few months as school boards have tried to balance their budgets.  Without a mandate to provide services, and faced with a funding shortfall, many school boards proposed reducing SLP positions for the 2002-2003 school year.  Parents who are OAFCCD members made heartfelt pleas at meetings in many different parts of the province and at the end of the day managed to maintain services.  However, without significant changes to the funding formula, we expect that school boards will again consider reducing services next year.  Parents can’t go on fighting year after year.

OAFCCD Concerns with the Education Funding Formula:

Foundation Grant:

The Professional/Para-Professional line of the Foundation Grant is a catch-all for a variety of specialists employed by school boards.  Funding for this line is based on a ratio per 1000 students and an average salary.  It is unclear which professionals or para-professionals are most appropriately funded by this category, and the average salary level does not reflect the actual salaries.  For example, this line has been used to fund special education staff including Educational Assistants, Speech-Language Pathologists and Psychologists who reflect a large salary range.   There should be clarification of which specialists should be funded by this category and the funding should reflect the appropriate salary level and be based on an effective student ratio.

Special Education Funding:

The fact that special education funds are protected is very important.  Unfortunately, the current level of funding is inadequate and, in almost all school boards, actual expenditures have exceeded the funding provided.

One of OAFCCD’s most serious concern is that despite an education funding formula that delivers the same per pupil amount to each board, the levels of special education programs and services are inconsistent across the province.  In part, this may be due to variable salaries and the difficulties in recruiting and retaining specialist staff in rural and northern areas.  However, we believe the major issue is a lack of clarity about the purpose of special education services and a lack of accountability to student achievement.  That is, does the development of an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and the provision of special education programs and services lead to improved outcomes for students?  At the current time, there is no way of determining this.

OAFCCD members believe that it is critical that the Ministry of Education complete the development of special education program standards and clarify outcome expectations as soon as possible.  Without a provincial framework of service delivery standards and outcome expectations, it will be impossible to determine what level of special education funding boards actually require.

SEPPA Grant :

While the total funding allocation for special education has been inadequate it is not possible to say whether or not the SEPPA per pupil allocation is adequate.  This is because there are no provincial standards regarding special education programs and services.  OAFCCD members believe it is critical that the Ministry of Education implement the provincial standards that have been developed over the past two years.  Until there is a clear expectation of what services should be provided and monitoring of the student outcomes, it is impossible to say how much funding is required to meet student needs.

As a starting point the funding should be adequate to ensure all schools have access to special education teachers, professional staff and educational assistants.  Funding could be calculated on a ratio similar to the one used for classroom teachers.  OAFCCD members have researched the practice of other jurisdictions and believe that the appropriate ratio for Speech-Language Pathologists(SLP) is 1 SLP per 1500 students.

Secondary School Special Education Funding:

The SEPPA grant for Secondary School students is currently below the level for elementary students and OAFCCD members believe this is unacceptable.  While we support early identification and intervention services, we do not believe that senior elementary and secondary students should get fewer services.  The needs of adolescents with speech and language impairments could be more serious as these students are at high risk for poor social relationships, dropping out of school and getting in trouble with the law.  In addition, people with disabilities experience a much higher rate of unemployment than other people.  Special education services for teens are inadequate and funding for secondary schools should be increased to recognize the significant needs of students with long term disabilities, such as a language disorder.

ISA Grant:

ISA 1 Grants have been successfully utilized by school boards to ensure that students have the equipment they need and OAFCCD members would support the continuation of this grant.  The grant would be even more useful if it could also be used to fund student assessments, especially those not provided by the school board and if the co-payment of $800 paid by the board were eliminated.  The student profiles for ISA 2, 3 and 4 Grants specifically exclude students with speech and language disorders, unless the student also has another disability.  This is not fair and does not recognize the significant challenges faced by students with severe speech and language disorders.

However, having noted this omission we do not believe that the ISA Grant process has been in the best interest of students.  The complex eligibility process and changing criteria have significantly reduced special education programs and services for over three years.  OAFCCD members do not support the continuation of this process.

As the resources invested in the ISA Grant process have been significant we believe that the information should not be wasted. The extensive needs of thousands of students have been well documented and school boards should be provided with funding levels which reflect the actual cost of providing the required services. The data collected could also be used to develop a weighting factor.  Boards that have more than the average % of high needs students, should be provided with additional resources.

Co-ordination of Services with other Ministries:

The delivery of speech and language services currently involves a large number of health agencies through the Policy/Program Memorandum 81 and the Inter-Ministerial Guidelines for Speech and Language Services.  While this service arrangement is under review by the Co-ordinated Services Advisory Committee at the Ministry of Education, it is still critical that the current agreement is followed until a new policy is developed.

This agreement has implications for the Education Equality Task Force because it raises the issue of joint service delivery between education and community partners and how it should be funded. The focus of the current education funding formula is on the provision of adequate funding for educational purposes only.  The difficulty is that schools are the only place in which children have universal access and many worthwhile and effective programs have been established within schools and in partnership with community agencies.  The education funding formula must recognize that these programs have value to society.   Society supports publicly funded education not just because it is good for children, but because it benefits society.

One possible solution would be for the government to establish a Community Partnership Fund that schools and other partners could access to maintain and develop effective supports and services for children and families, such as parenting programs, mental health prevention, etc..  Such a fund would require joint accountability between the partners and prevent any partner from walking away from service responsibilities when agency and Ministry mandates change.

In the case of speech and language services there has been a significant erosion of services for children as Community Care Access Centres have struggled to balance their budgets.  The result has been long waits for services, restrictions on eligibility criteria and changes in service delivery models.  These changes have impacted school boards who relied on their health partners to provide certain services to children, but the school boards have no recourse.  They must accept the decision of agencies funded by another ministry and try to fill in the gap.  Unfortunately, boards do not have adequate resources and the reality is that children are not having their needs met.

Given this example, and many more similar service partnerships, it is critical that a new mechanism be developed to ensure that public funds are used effectively and efficiently to meet the needs of children and families.  A Community Partnership Fund with a joint accountability mechanism might be the solution.

OAFCCD Recommendations:
 

Thank you very much for the opportunity to make this presentation.
 

Presentation by Professor Genese Warr-Leeper,
President of the Ontario Association for
Families of Children with Communication Disorders (OAFCCD)
 

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