Twenty child advocacy groups and nonprofits called on Texas lawmakers this week to increase funding for a struggling program that helps more than 50,000 small children with disabilities and developmental delays in the state.
Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, said the early childhood intervention program, known as ECI, has been “chronically underfunded” since lawmakers slashed its budget during the 2015 legislative session.
“If the underfunding continues … more ECI programs – [which are] nonprofit agencies – will close their doors,” she said. “Families won’t be able to find the supports they need for their babies and toddlers with delays, [and] there will be lawsuits filed.”
ECI is a state-run program that must meet federal standards. It gives funding to nonprofits that provide therapies that help children from birth to 3 years old learn to eat, speak and sit up on their own, among other basic things.
“It’s very clear that chronic underfunding by the Legislature has led to 18 nonprofit ECI programs closing down," Rubin said, leaving thousands of kids without services or with gaps in services.
Officials at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission have also raised concerns about what the cuts have done to the program. It has asked lawmakers to increase funding for the ECI program by $71 million over the next two years.
In its appropriations request, the commission said the caseload from the 18 providers has been shifted to the remaining contractors, which are forced to make cuts to accommodate.
“Additionally, children and families feel the effects of contractor transitions as they develop close relationships with providers which can be lost when contractors exit the program,” officials wrote in the request. “The time needed to re-establish this relationship once a new contractor is fully operational can translate to negative consequences for families. As ECI only serves children from birth to age three, providers have a short time to make a difference; every day can impact a child and family’s future.”
Despite the warnings, that funding has yet to be included in current versions of the Texas House and Texas Senate budget bills.
According to advocacy groups, the budget bills, so far, include only "a small $4 million increase in federal funds for ECI caseload growth."
Rubin said the process has been “frustrating” because many lawmakers have said they care about early childhood education and children with disabilities.
“You know, it’s not often that agency leaders and advocates and families agree that a program is effective, it’s life changing for kids and it saves money in the long-run,” she said. “Yet, the Legislature, by not fully funding the program, is really short-changing kids.
The groups are also waiting for a federal report on Texas' ECI program.
Shortly after cuts to the program went into effect, the Office of Special Education Programs within the U.S. Department of Education came to Texas to see if the state was following federal standards.
Rubin said that since that visit the “situation has actually gotten worse and more providers have dropped out.” Last month, the agency said it was "continuing to review information in follow up to its monitoring visit."