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Virginia Struggles To Improve Services For Disabled Students

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Rates of children with autism are on the rise in the commonwealth, but funds to educate them may soon dwindle.
Travis Ekmark: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sayholatotravis/3796435103/
Rates of children with autism are on the rise in the commonwealth, but funds to educate them may soon dwindle.

With nearly 163,000 students with disabilities in Virginia's public education system, the commonwealth is looking at how services can be improved, while also becoming more efficient in the midst of budget constraints.

The number of students labeled as disabled has declined, as educators learned to identify those with merely reading or math problems. Even so, assistant superintendent of special education John Eisenberg says that for the past six years, school have added an additional 1,000 students a year with autism spectrum disorders.

"There has been a 495 percent increase in the number of students with autism," says Eisenberg. "It is exploding across the commonwealth, and it has been a major emphasis that we've had at the department to really reorganize ourselves and prepare these students for better post-school outcomes."

Last year, $1.6 billion in state and local funds were spent on special ed, but the schools also spent $360 million in federal funds and Eisenberg said that could soon decline.

"We are very concerned with the discussions that are going on at the federal level about sequestriation," says Eisenberg. "There has potential impacts of 10 to 20 percent cuts across the board."

There's also a shortage of speech, physical and occupational therapists. The state is now requiring training of paraprofessionals to help out in the classroom.

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