Advocates for gifted students warn program could be in Legislature’s funding sights

Kate Quinton, 9, is a gifted student at McCollom Elementary School. (Jan. 7, 2015)
Kate Quinton, 9, is a gifted student at McCollom Elementary School. (Jan. 7, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Advocates for gifted education in Kansas are marshaling forces against what they say could be a push to change the way gifted children are classified, funded and served in the state’s public schools.

The Kansas Association for the Gifted, Talented and Creative, a nonprofit advocacy group, earlier this month began issuing warnings about what it says is early-draft legislation that would remove gifted children from the realm of special education.

So far, no bill has been filed in the Kansas Legislature, which begins its new session Monday.

But advocates say they aren’t waiting for official legislative action to rally the troops. They argue via social media and elsewhere that such a move – if it happens – could gut funding for gifted education and do away with protections gifted students and their families have.

“The purpose of my sending out information was to make people aware,” said Sheri Stewart, a retired educator of the gifted and president of the state group.

“With the financial crisis that we’re in, people are trying to figure out ways to get more money,” she said of the state’s budget crunch. “This isn’t a big-money item, but if they keep chipping away at things, this is one place they’ve been known to look.”

Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration said last week that education spending, which avoided any trims in last year’s session, will not go untouched during the current session.

Gifted numbers, spending

During the 2012-13 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, about 14,000 Kansas students were identified as intellectually gifted, meaning they completed a battery of assessments and were approved to receive special-education services.

Wichita, the state’s largest district, has about 1,200 gifted students, said Neil Guthrie, assistant superintendent of student support. Those students are served in a variety of ways by the district’s 45 gifted-education teachers.

Kansas spends about $12 million a year on gifted education – most of it in the form of reimbursements to districts based on the number of teachers for the gifted that they employ. Along with mandating that gifted children receive services based on their needs, the state also requires teachers of the gifted to have specialized training and certification.

Advocates across the country say they hold up Kansas as an example of the way gifted education should be mandated, regulated and funded.

“Kansas really has it good for gifted and talented,” said Jane Clarenbach, director of public education for the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington, D.C. “That doesn’t mean everything’s perfect and happy and all the students get exactly what they need.

“But those three things – a mandate to identify and serve, earmarked funding to districts and specialized training for teachers – are not common in more than a handful of states,” she said. “So when I say others look on Kansas and say, ‘Wow, we wish we had what Kansas has,’ I’m not kidding you.”

At last count, 35 states mandate gifted programming in some way, but funding for those programs varies widely. Seven states provide no funding for gifted programs. Nineteen states, including Kansas, provide partial funding to districts.

Only Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi mandate gifted programming and provide full funding for it.

Reaching potential

It’s unclear what types of changes, if any, Kansas lawmakers may propose or who would support changes.

Stewart, who was a teacher of the gifted, professor and state coordinator in Nebraska and Colorado before moving to Kansas, says advocates continually find themselves having to fight for funding and an overall understanding of gifted kids’ needs.

“The stereotype is that those kids already have everything, so why do they need more?” she said. “We’re constantly fighting that battle.”

Donna Quinton, whose third-grader attends McCollom Elementary School in Wichita, said she hopes lawmakers don’t change or reduce gifted services. Her daughter, Kate, gets accelerated math and reading lessons along with other gifted children each day from a teacher for the gifted.

“These children are entitled to be taught at the level they are capable of learning,” Quinton said. “It’s not just a worksheet they can do on their own. They have to be taught what they are learning … so they can reach their full potential.”

Because gifted is categorized as special education in Kansas, students are entitled by state law to an individualized education program. The written plan describes specialized educational programs the student will receive, and it is regularly reviewed and revised by a team that includes teachers, counselors, the child’s parents and others.

“When you look at special ed, we’ve got so much of the red tape that goes with that, and it does make it more difficult,” said Guthrie, the Wichita administrator.

“But that’s probably what families have felt anytime gifted ed comes up: As long as it’s under the special-ed umbrella, they feel more secure.”

Another challenge to districts, Guthrie said, is recruiting teachers for specific content areas, such as upper-level math, science and foreign languages, who also have gifted-education certification.

When gifted kids move to middle and high schools, they often take advanced courses, and the school’s coordinator for the gifted works with teachers to make sure the students’ needs – including social and emotional development – are being met.

“There are other states that have a mandate and give funding but not under special ed,” Guthrie said. “I guess the question would be: Has that hurt their ability to meet their kids’ needs?

“In the climate of economics that we have here in Kansas right now, I can see why parents would be reluctant to go that direction, just because they might be fearful. … There’s not enough money there for regular education, let alone what they would put aside to meet a mandate for gifted kids.”

Helping gifted students

Clarenbach, the national director, said including gifted children with other “exceptional learners” under the state’s special-education laws makes sense.

Experts estimate that between 6 and 10 percent of students are gifted, though many are never identified.

“Those kids need something different than what the other 90 percent need. And it’s not just academics,” she said.

“Having an arrangement where gifted students are acknowledged as a special-needs group of students is probably the biggest thing, just standing there by itself,” she said.

“We signal to school districts what’s important by what we require. Acknowledging that gifted (students) are in the population, that they have special needs and that districts must look for them and figure out how to serve them to address those learning needs is something to be proud of.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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