‘Our Voices Are Powerful’ What can we do about billions of dollars in proposed cuts to education? Quite a bit, actually. Features
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Features  |   September 01, 2017
‘Our Voices Are Powerful’
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content editor/producer for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content editor/producer for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org×
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School-Based Settings / Speech, Voice & Prosody / Features
Features   |   September 01, 2017
‘Our Voices Are Powerful’
The ASHA Leader, September 2017, Vol. 22, 46-52. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.22092017.46
The ASHA Leader, September 2017, Vol. 22, 46-52. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.22092017.46
Proposed cuts to federal education spending for the upcoming fiscal year total more than $9 billion. And there’s no way to get around it: These cuts could pose a threat to audiology and speech-language pathology services in schools—to the detriment of students with hearing and speech-language disorders.
The nearly 14-percent decrease in the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed budget significantly reduces special education, literacy and teacher training services, while aiming to eliminate funding for many student supports, including mental health services, after-school enrichment, gifted classes, foreign languages and Special Olympics.
In addition, Medicaid faces a nearly $800-billion reduction over the next 10 years, potentially endangering jobs or further reducing services provided by educational audiologists and school-based speech-language pathologists. And even though funds are at risk, federal requirements for accountability—such as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—remain in place. Because special education services under IDEA are required, this means school districts might have to redirect funds from schools’ already tight general education budgets—putting sports, music, art and advanced placement programs at risk for cuts as well.
Marie Ireland—specialist for speech-language pathology at the Virginia Department of Education, Virginia’s representative to the State Education Agencies Communication Disabilities Council, and incoming member of the ASHA Board of Directors—spoke with The ASHA Leader on this topic. Although she agrees the future looks uncertain, Ireland shares her silver lining.
“Proposed changes are just that—proposed,” she says. “I see this as a great opportunity for audiologists, SLPs, special educators, teachers and families to advocate.”
How can an educational audiologist or school-based SLP—or any one communication sciences and disorders (CSD) professional—effect change in this uncertain educational landscape? Knowledge and personal advocacy, Ireland answers. Yes, ASHA and other organizations are already advocating on behalf of CSD professionals and their students, patients or clients. However, Ireland explains, individual constituents who contact their state or federal legislators in person are even more effective.
“It’s critical for our school-based professionals to get involved and build relationships,” Ireland says. “ASHA works hard on our behalf, but legislators are accountable to their constituents. Never underestimate the power of a phone call or email from someone who lives in their voting district.”
Ireland wants all CSD professionals to get involved. Even if proposed cuts don’t affect our own children, they could affect our relatives and friends, future generations, and our colleagues’ students.
Consider this, says Ireland: Changes in education today could touch people working in your community, professionals who will care for you someday and your family’s future. “We as professionals tend to sort ourselves by work setting—schools, health care, private practice—but I think it’s important for all of us to advocate for services in schools,” Ireland says, “even if it’s not for our explicit work setting.”
In this interview, Ireland shares more of her expertise on why and how CSD professionals can get involved with today’s political and educational landscape. Her deep knowledge on these issues comes from nearly 20 years of her own advocacy. Ireland’s resume includes active roles with the Speech-Language-Hearing Association of Virginia, Virginia Autism Council, State Education Agencies Communication Disabilities Council and ASHA’s Speech-Language Pathology Advisory Council. On Jan. 1, 2018, she begins her three-year term as ASHA vice president for speech-language pathology practice.

“Proposed changes are just that—proposed. I see this as a great opportunity for audiologists, SLPs, special educators, teachers and families to advocate.”

What do you think is the key current education issue for educational audiologists and school-based SLPs to understand?
Nationwide there’s a real focus on results-driven accountability. It’s a term we see a lot in education these days.
We were always charged with monitoring for compliance on state and federal regulations. But this results-driven accountability really shifts the focus on student outcomes, such as higher graduation rates, increased time in general education classrooms, transition opportunities post-graduation for work or college—in general, preparing students for a better quality of life. All of this is designed to give them meaningful experiences to prepare them for the future.
Also, schools are focusing a lot of resources on setting up multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS)—which involves providing services to students before they are being brought into special education programs—in literacy, math, language or behavior. In some states, MTSS replaces RTI—response to intervention. They are similar approaches, but MTSS includes a wider purview of supports for more students.
I think the biggest change in special education is this ever-increasing focus on accountability and student outcomes.
What are individual states doing in response to the changing education landscape?
Each state has its own unique challenges and they all have to be responsive to federal data reporting requirements for the state systemic improvement plans (SSIP, a program of the federal Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services designed to comply with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act).
Each state creates and submits an IDEA Part B annual performance report (APR) and state performance plan (SPP) compiling the data collected for results-driven accountability programs. Each state addresses its own needs based on those reports—graduation rates, transitions, services in general education, disproportionate identification of disorders and other issues. So each state focuses on making improvements in areas where their data don’t meet required thresholds.
Each state develops its own priorities. Because of their data, some states focus on eligibility determination, for example. If they are shown to under- or over-identify students, these states focus on ways to make sure they correctly identify disorders across all student populations.
Other states, meanwhile, focus efforts on instruction or trying to increase graduation rates.
The requirement to submit that data has not been eliminated and neither has the IDEA. No matter what programs get eliminated or how funding streams might change, states still have to meet requirements based on results-driven accountability.
If budget cuts reduce services needed to achieve these required results, schools must find other ways to provide required services.
How do the changes made by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) come into play for educational audiologists and school-based SLPs?
Every state was required to develop and submit its own state plan for the federal government after ESSA was enacted. Each one developed a plan that aligns with their unique situation. These plans detail how the state will address any concerns within their education programs. States already submitted their first round of plans to the government. And this past July, the fiscal year attached to those first state plans took effect. Accountability for ESSA requirements took effect once the fiscal year began, so it’s really just getting started.
Even with the plans in place, nobody really knows what changes will occur as ESSA takes effect, because guidance from the federal government can—and does—change. Each state plan focuses on academic standards and how to maintain and measure accountability for more significantly impaired children, but a lot of states haven’t made huge departures from their plans in past years, because ESSA gives them a lot of flexibility. So if they already had a system in place they felt worked, they might just continue with the same approach.
Why is it important for CSD professionals in schools—and other work settings—to advocate?
The importance of advocating comes down to the fact that if we don’t share information on how potential changes affect students, how will our legislators know what the issues are and how they impact students and their families? They might never have known anyone with a communication disorder and might not understand what we do. We can inform them and help them make better decisions when they face legislation or budget issues related to our services. If legislators don’t know us or our issues, they might not be compelled to fight for students with disabilities.
I was making Capitol Hill visits in March and talking to a legislative aide. I asked her if she knew anyone who had difficulty communicating. Or did she know anyone who had a stroke? Anyone with a disability? She answered no to all of those questions. She really was unaware of the challenges faced by those with communication or hearing issues. Once we finished talking, she said she was lucky SLPs existed. I think we take for granted that everyone knows who we are and what we do.
It’s critical for our school-based professionals to get involved in these issues and build relationships with local, state and national policymakers. ASHA works hard on our behalf, but legislators are responsible to their constituents. Never underestimate the power of a phone call or email from someone who lives in their voting district. Communicating what’s important to you helps our legislators better understand the issues and can really change how they support or view budget cuts or legislation when it’s time to act. Your calls and emails really make a difference.

“I asked a legislative aide if she knew anyone who had difficulty communicating. Anyone who had a stroke? Anyone with a disability? She answered no to all of those questions. Once we finished talking, she said she was lucky SLPs existed.”

How can SLPs and educational audiologists advocate for education as the landscape changes?
There are proposed changes to funding, but all of those are just getting started. Members should access ASHA’s document on ESSA, because it provides links to state-by-state information, changes in funding and how members can advocate. But first they have to understand what’s happening in their state.
Once you understand the issues and know which ones are important to you and your students or clients, getting involved is really easy. Sign up for action alerts from ASHA at takeaction.asha.org, for example. When you get an alert, just click the link. It’s a pre-written letter to your specific representatives. You can make changes to the letter or just hit send. But you don’t have to wait for those alerts.
It’s important to make sure your representatives understand how cuts affect education. IDEA is federally mandated, and we have to provide the services listed in every IEP. So even if school budgets get cut, we still have to provide those services. Federal education funding and policy might result in changes to special education services, but ultimately you can’t stop delivering those services. In this case, funding might need to get allocated from general education resources, which representatives might not know.
You are uniquely knowledgeable and best able to communicate to your legislators about the value early intervention and other educational supports provide for kids in your communities.
What issues should educational audiologists and school-based SLPs understand and advocate for?
It’s important to understand background information on whatever topic you care about. Before you call or email your legislators, find out how the funding works for these issues and what it takes to effect change. Below are some key issues you might want to learn about from your state policies, so you can advocate for change.
Reasonable workload. Workload and caseload issues are longstanding challenges, but it’s important to understand that caseload mandates are dictated by state funding formulas. It’s not as simple as saying we want lower caseloads. Your district administration may understand the value of manageable caseloads, but the funding formula allocates funding for positions. A lot of administrators really do understand and value what we do, but it isn’t within their power to make a change. This is a state-level issue, so stay active in state associations and look for opportunities to press for change within the legislative process or a bill.
Service delivery. How can we help school faculty see the value of integrating services in the classroom more frequently and taking a more dynamic approach to treatment? Interprofessional practice (IPP) can help with this. Many school-based CSD professionals already collaborate, but we have lots of room to build stronger teams—including with other special educators and families. Aligning treatment with general education content and curriculum is another way to improve service delivery. If you advocate to increase your time—or a student’s time—within general education settings, tell your representatives about the benefits to other students in the classroom when a special education student gets an integrated experience. In addition, when we’re in the classroom, we can model valuable strategies for teachers and paraprofessionals, and this ultimately supports all students. As for being seen as a valuable part of the school community when there are budget cuts, being in the classroom is also an important first step.
Value of our services. How do we help others to see our value? This acknowledgement will be increasingly more important as budgets get even smaller. I think it’s crucial to stay abreast of current research, embrace new and promising techniques, and use evidence-based practice (EBP). Also, use MTSS and other initiatives to find your place within your school community.
SLP shortages. Even with personnel shortages, it’s important that as school professionals we hold true to the requirements of IDEA. Students must have a documented impairment, as well as a lack of access to the curriculum, to receive services. We have to be sure we do comprehensive evaluations and students we identify meet educational requirements under IDEA, which differs from a clinical decision-making process. Speech-language impairment is one of five impairments the federal government is reviewing for over-identification. We have big hearts, and we want to identify everyone, but we need to make sure we’re not adding to the problem. MTSS can help fix that gap. We’re moving from two distinct camps of education—general education and special education—to moving toward a continuation of education, where students get their needs met regardless of specific identification.
Evidence-based practice. This is really a passion of mine! Evidence demonstrates our own value and makes our assessment and treatment practices defensible. ASHA members have amazing access to information on EBP, including via the Practice Portal. We can read all of the journals and review article topics using electronic tables of contents. In addition, many state associations provide free tools. Here in Virginia, we publish a free newsletter called “Talking EBP”. Or there’s the Ohio Master’s Network Initiatives in Education (OMNIE), which offers models for school-based CSD professionals.
Cuts to Medicaid and IDEA funding. IDEA isn’t fully funded, but is required, so the money has to come from somewhere. Medicaid bridges that gap to get services to children with disabilities that they really need to function, and it’s not even half of what we need. Some families receiving services through Medicaid may not have the means to make their voices heard. Their focus might be just trying to live from day to day, so who better to advocate for them than the professionals who know the importance of services?
Can you recommend any tools or resources to help CSD professionals advocate?
Many resources make it really easy for us to make a difference. The ASHA Facebook advocacy page is a great way to get started, as are ASHA’s advocacy resources, including examples of success stories, state-by-state page and Special Interest Group community boards. Subscribe to ASHA Headlines and respond to alerts and calls to action on education issues. Reach out to your speech-language hearing association and state state education agency. There are numerous levels of involvement, and participating in any one of them can really help. Our voices are powerful, and we need to understand the power we have.
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September 2017
Volume 22, Issue 9