How IDEA Helps Improve Child and Family Outcomes

Sarah Walters

Fiscal reporting helps to ensure the federal funds state agencies receive under the Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities (Part C of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]) are being used correctly. This information has a significant impact on state programs because funding is foundational to high-quality systems and for improving outcomes for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. Providing high-quality technical assistance (TA) to support early intervention systems’ ability to implement the requirements of IDEA is also key to ensuring strong early intervention systems. Westat’s Sarah Walters, M.S.Ed., a Senior Study Director, through the Center for IDEA Fiscal Reporting (CIFR), provides TA and develops tools for state agencies to use to help them collect, report, and analyze their fiscal data. She also provides TA to the state of Nebraska’s Part C of IDEA program through the Nebraska Technical Assistance Project (NETA). Here she discusses advances in fiscal reporting and other progress in helping states improve outcomes.

Q: How do you and your team help states improve the quality of their collection, reporting, analysis, and use of IDEA Part C fiscal data?

A: We are helping state lead agency staff recognize that while state early intervention programs for children with disabilities ages birth to 3 have different funding structures, there are specific allowable uses of federal funding under IDEA. I work with them on understanding those rules and regulations and the processes for tracking, allocating, and reporting high-quality fiscal data so they can narrow in on what their states need to improve outcomes.

Q: What qualities are most beneficial when working with this cadre of professionals?

A: Collaboration and relationship building are key. Any time you are talking about funding for critical services, the stakes are high. Trust is also key. If we are not working together to ensure funding is appropriately used and accounted for, these children and their families cannot get the services they are entitled to and counting on.

Q: What obstacles have you faced because of the pandemic?

A: As a TA provider I am used to working directly with states, providing in-person support for state lead agency staff. At the same time, state staff are also used to operating with their local providers in the same way. In our work on the NETA project we had to shift our approach to providing TA and training when the pandemic hit. The program reached out for help, and we readily assisted them to pivot their provider trainings to a virtual platform.

Q: Nebraska conducts an annual survey to measure and report family outcomes. The NETA project assists them with recording and analyzing data. What steps did you take to improve the survey and why?

A: We streamlined the survey—shortening it—with the intention of encouraging a greater number of parents to respond. This involved deleting questions that were not pertinent and adding questions to ensure more input from parents regarding the need for program improvements. We also worked with Nebraska to analyze the results to ensure the survey respondents represented all of the state’s demographic groups and geographic regions to assure the co-lead agencies are looking at data through a lens of equity. NETA was pleased with the families’ insights and the work we did. It all circles back to the end goal: improving outcomes for these students.

Collaboration and relationship building are key. Any time you are talking about funding for critical services, the stakes are high. 

- Sarah Walters, M.S.Ed., a Senior Study Director, Education Studies

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