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A new task force will be dedicated to reviewing special education services in the state. Credit: iStockphoto.com

A new task force will review special education services in the state. Credit: iStockphoto.com

Special education, a multi-billion-dollar operation long viewed in Sacramento as too big and confounding to reform, may finally grab policymakers’ attention.

Three state education agencies announced Thursday the creation of a foundation-funded Task Force On Special Education. Established at the request of State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and Stanford School of Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who’s a member and former chairwoman of the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the task force will take until early 2015 to examine all facets of educating students with disabilities. The task force will then make recommendations for policy and legislative changes to the State Board, the credentialing commission and the State Department of Education. Expected areas of attention include ways to improve the supply and preparation of special education teachers, variations among districts in identifying and adequately serving students with disabilities, and the state’s complex system of funding programs and services for special-needs children.

In their proposal to outside funders, Kirst and Darling-Hammond said that challenges with special education are decades-old and require a fundamental change in mindset and approach. California’s orientation since the 1970s, the proposal said, has been on complying with “bureaucratic mandates in order to ensure that federal funds flow into the state, rather than ensuring that students get the educational opportunities they need to succeed.” The ultimate goal should be to create a system that can “identify and meet the learning needs of any student” who may need special support at any time to improve learning, not just those students formally identified with disabilities.

Two respected retired K-12 special education administrators will serve as full-time co-executive directors of the task force. Vicki Barber created innovative special education services for charter schools in particular, as superintendent of schools for El Dorado County; and Maureen Burness is a former assistant superintendent and director of regional special education agencies, known as SELPAs, at both the district and county levels. Members of the task force will include parents, teachers, school and district administrators, university professors and members of other interested groups, and will report to the State Board, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the State Department of Education, according to a news release.

About 10 percent of California’s 6.3 million students have been classified as having a disability, which is less than the nationwide average of 13 percent, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. But the rates of classification vary considerably among districts, particularly among those students identified as having learning disabilities, which make up more than 40 percent of the total. Serving students with disabilities costs an average of $22,300, more than twice that of a mainstream student, according to a Legislative Analyst’s Office report, but most students with disabilities need much less costly services; the bulk of the expense goes to a small percentage of severely disabled students and those requiring residential facilities. Students with autism, now making up 10 percent of students with special needs, has been the fastest growing disability category.

New thinking about teacher credentialing

A shortage of special education teachers has been a perennial concern of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which has recently focused on the type of training these teachers receive. In California, different credentialing standards have applied to special education and general academic teachers. In June, the Teacher Preparation Advisory Committee recommended that the commission reexamine this relationship, perhaps adding general education requirements for a special education credential and extra training in mild language disabilities for general teachers. A more blended approach could better prepare teachers to work with students who haven’t been coded with a disability but have learning issues while better preparing special education teachers for mainstream classes in the more rigorous Common Core standards.

Since 1975, federal law has mandated that students with disabilities receive free and appropriate education in the least restrictive setting. But, despite promises of paying a bigger share, the federal government now picks up only 18 percent of the cost of special education. The state has paid 43 percent of the cost, with districts picking up the remaining – and growing – portion. There has been talk about the need to reform state funding of Special Education Local Plan Areas, or SELPAs, which are district collaboratives taking advantage of economies of scale. But Gov. Brown purposely excluded special education funding from the Local Control Funding Formula because it needed special attention.

Funding for special education was only a piece of the problem, said Kirst, an architect of the new school finance system. “The feeling was you needed to fix the whole car, not just the transmission,” he said.

There’s a need to step back and rethink the the entire system, to look at new service models for students with special needs, Kirst said. Until now, there has been no vehicle for overhauling the system.

The task force will be funded by the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation and the Stuart Foundation*, with additional help from other philanthropic organizations.

* The Stuart Foundation is one of EdSource’s funders but has no control over editorial decisions.

John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.


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  1. CarolineSF 3 years ago3 years ago

    These two statements seem to contradict each other: "although their needs may be different, the expectations are the same, as they should be." "For example, the commenter states a student who is blind and gifted should not be “in the same bucket as a child with a traumatic brain injury.” This seems to group all students with TBI together, although their individual circumstances may be quite different, e.g., some students with TBI may have initial cognitive … Read More

    These two statements seem to contradict each other:

    “although their needs may be different, the expectations are the same, as they should be.”

    “For example, the commenter states a student who is blind and gifted should not be “in the same bucket as a child with a traumatic brain injury.” This seems to group all students with TBI together, although their individual circumstances may be quite different, e.g., some students with TBI may have initial cognitive disabilities but recover from them quickly; others may be far more affected for a longer period. Should we lump all those students together based on the TBI diagnosis and then base our expectations on one specific diagnosis, without regard to the individual’s needs? That is not best practices nor is it the law.”

    So is the point that expectations should be the same for all kids with disabilities (and without disabilities) or should be based on the individual needs of each child with a disability?

    Replies

    • Deborah Blair Porter 3 years ago3 years ago

      No, the statements don’t contradict each other; rather I use the term “expectations” in two different contexts. First, I use the word “expectations” in the context of my response to EL’s question with regard to how we look at how a student with TBI is going to be able to perform, and relates to my point that each individual student’s needs must be examined, as an outcome or expectation for each student with regard to the … Read More

      No, the statements don’t contradict each other; rather I use the term “expectations” in two different contexts.

      First, I use the word “expectations” in the context of my response to EL’s question with regard to how we look at how a student with TBI is going to be able to perform, and relates to my point that each individual student’s needs must be examined, as an outcome or expectation for each student with regard to the nature of their particular TBI will be different.

      My other statement “although their needs may be different, the expectations are the same, as they should be” refers to “expectations” as that term is used in the law, which provides that: “Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by (A) having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible, in order to (i) meet developmental goals and, to the maximum extent possible, the challenging expectations that have been established for all children; and (ii) be prepared to lead productive and independent adult lives, to the maximum extent possible.” (IDEA’s Findings and Purpose, at 20 U.S.C.§1400(c)(5))

      The requirement that we hold high expectations is also reflected in the law regarding the IEP process, which requires that a student’s individual needs must be considered and addressed uniquely and the resulting IEP document is to include a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services to be provided to the child to: a) allow them to make appropriate progress to goals that are unique to them; b) have access to and make progress in the general education curriculum of the state in which they reside; c) participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities; and d) do all of this (i.e., be educated and participate), with other children who are both disabled and nondisabled. (You can find all this in the IDEA at 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(A)(i) and in California’s Education Code at §56345).

      Holding “high expectations” is the standard for all children. You can do a search of CDE’s website and you will find such statements throughout. As I said in my comment to Dr. Cohn’s article, I am addressing the issue from the perspective that “all students with disabilities,” just as their typical peers, should be taught to their potential, just as both state and federal law require. This is what the law generally says and what we (and again, the law) expect, i.e., for ALL California students to be grade level proficient. Our goal should be to ensure that all students get what they receive to meet their unique needs and the goal of getting as close to grade level proficiency as they are capable of doing.

      If we don’t aim for the top of the mountain, with the expectation that we fully intend to do whatever is necessary to get there, we won’t have a chance of getting even halfway up the hill.

      Hope that clarifies for you.

  2. Deborah Blair Porter 3 years ago3 years ago

    I am wondering why a new task force is required? 20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(21) and California’s Education Code §33590-6 provide for our current Advisory Commission for Special Education (ACSE) with representatives from various aspects of special education, including CDE, the State Board of Education, California’s legislature, local education agencies and parents. ACSE has been uniquely positioned to “develop policy recommendations and an implementation plan to guide California’s transformation of educational programs and outcomes for … Read More

    I am wondering why a new task force is required? 20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(21) and California’s Education Code §33590-6 provide for our current Advisory Commission for Special Education (ACSE) with representatives from various aspects of special education, including CDE, the State Board of Education, California’s legislature, local education agencies and parents. ACSE has been uniquely positioned to “develop policy recommendations and an implementation plan to guide California’s transformation of educational programs and outcomes for students with special needs” as the proposed Task Force envisions. (See, http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/as/acserqrmnt.asp). I wonder why it hasn’t done so, particularly given that ACSE’s Executive Secretary is Fred Balcom, Director of CDE’s Special Education Division and State Board of Education is also represented.

    I respectfully disagree with the comment “few of these students will go on to college”. There is no reason the vast majority of students with disabilities should not go to college, given that most of them are quite capable of doing so if we hold high expectations, ensure they have appropriate supports and services and access to the state standards that typical students receive, which is what both the IDEA and California law mandate.

    In response to the comment by EL, we classify ALL kids in the same bucket, i.e., although their needs may be different, the expectations are the same, as they should be. While students with disabilities may be part of a “group” or “subgroup” for statistical purposes, these students should not be categorized simply by the fact that they have a disability or by a particular disability, as it causes people to think it’s all right to set them apart and treat them separately, which is contrary to the law. Also, doing so leads people to see them as the disability first, instead of as a child who also happens to have a disability. These are California kids who, just as the rest of California’s kids, are our obligation to educate, with the same high expectations for their achievement as we hold for their typical peers. That’s not my opinion. That’s the law and common sense.

    People often make assumptions based on a disability category that may not be correct. For example, the commenter states a student who is blind and gifted should not be “in the same bucket as a child with a traumatic brain injury.” This seems to group all students with TBI together, although their individual circumstances may be quite different, e.g., some students with TBI may have initial cognitive disabilities but recover from them quickly; others may be far more affected for a longer period. Should we lump all those students together based on the TBI diagnosis and then base our expectations on one specific diagnosis, without regard to the individual’s needs? That is not best practices nor is it the law.

    Both IDEA and California’s Education Code mandate a process for development of an individualized education program (IEP) for eligible students with disabilities, with the key word being “individualized”. This process looks at strengths and unique needs of each student individually, not just their specific diagnosis or eligibility category, for the very reason that each student has unique needs, but also because people often make incorrect assumptions based on disability categories alone that can unfortunately lead to the most dangerous assumption, i.e., the belief that a student cannot learn, when, in fact, they can learn if they are given appropriate supports and services. When school staff make the most dangerous assumption, they are often accompanied by lowered expectations with the result that students are not given services or taught in a manner that allows them to make progress.

    As to the suggestion that we use some system along the lines of the Paralympics, this is education, and not a game so I don’t think it is applicable. There has already been a lot of research done on how to properly educate and assess students with disabilities if only California would utilize it. In fact, IDEA was enacted to ensure that students who had historically been separated and left out of American schools were included in educational systems across the country. The question is when California will catch up to best practices and stop making excuses about why it is failing our children.

    Finally, I think people should consider what Oscar Pistorius, the South African athlete who ran on blades, did this past Olympics and how, with appropriate accommodations, he was able to compete quite successfully in the Olympics, not just the Paralympics. For me, that’s the model toward which I think we should be striving.

  3. Paula 3 years ago3 years ago

    How are the members of the task force being selected, or have they already been chosen? If there was an interest in participating, to whom would I go?

  4. el 3 years ago3 years ago

    I wrote something like this in a comment on a different story, but I'll bring it here too because it's more on topic for this story. It seems to me that SWD covers a huge amount of ground and that we do everyone a disservice by classifying gifted kids who happen to be blind or missing a limb in the same bucket as a child with a traumatic brain injury. The needs are so different - … Read More

    I wrote something like this in a comment on a different story, but I’ll bring it here too because it’s more on topic for this story.

    It seems to me that SWD covers a huge amount of ground and that we do everyone a disservice by classifying gifted kids who happen to be blind or missing a limb in the same bucket as a child with a traumatic brain injury. The needs are so different – and the expectations are too. No one as far as I know is punishing schools or teachers because a student with cerebral palsy can’t run a 10 minute mile.

    The Paralympic Games have a whole classification system for disorder types and within each type, a severity. As far as I know, we have nothing like this for school accountability. The idea that we can have a single modified STAR test that somehow is appropriate for every child who is classified special ed is… incomprehensible. I realize we have accommodations on top of that, but … there are some children who are not biologically capable of performing well on these exams. We need to expect and accept that that is true.

    I am 100% in favor of providing an appropriate and excellent education to every single child – neurotypical, gifted, SWD, troubled, low income, ELL, etc. I would be especially pleased to see special ed funding better developed and better accounted, and to have it adequately funded at the state and federal level. Our current accountability in terms of test scores on this population seems completely broken to me, not serving the interests of anyone at all well.

  5. April McCarthy 3 years ago3 years ago

    I have been in Special Education as an educator for 35 years. What I have seen in the last 10 years has been very painful as a teacher. The look of horror on my student's faces when they are given state test. Take a long hard look as to how we assess these students. Few of these students will go onto college so lets look at some job training for them and not wait … Read More

    I have been in Special Education as an educator for 35 years. What I have seen in the last 10 years has been very painful as a teacher. The look of horror on my student’s faces when they are given state test. Take a long hard look as to how we assess these students. Few of these students will go onto college so lets look at some job training for them and not wait until they are in high school. They need to start as early as middle school. PLEASE take a look at our program for SPED students and let’s do right for them!!!!

  6. Mark Halpert 3 years ago3 years ago

    With Common Core Standards and Assessments, students with disabilities will face massive challenges. This proposal is right on. Yes, parents and advocacy groups should be represented, and the need for this in Florida and every other state has never been greater. For students with learning disabilities, I expect 95% of our students to be below grade level the first year of these new tests. We need to shift the focus from Compliance … Read More

    With Common Core Standards and Assessments, students with disabilities will face massive challenges. This proposal is right on. Yes, parents and advocacy groups should be represented, and the need for this in Florida and every other state has never been greater. For students with learning disabilities, I expect 95% of our students to be below grade level the first year of these new tests. We need to shift the focus from Compliance to How Our Kids Can Succeed. This will require a recognition that the challenges are significant, we need to work together and we need to start ASAP.

  7. darleen 3 years ago3 years ago

    The dialog should also include parents of the students. What mechanism will be established for the advice and recommendations. What is the role of the California Special Education Advisory Committee? Are they going to be involved? There appears to be a great shift to leave parental involvement out of the issue. Is this going to be the continued trend?

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 3 years ago3 years ago

      I agree, Darleen, and I wouldn’t assume that the Commission will exclude parents from participating. The members haven’t been chosen yet. At the moment, I have no contact info to pass on, unfortunately.

    • Gina Plate 3 years ago3 years ago

      Thank you for your comments Darleen. As a Commissioner on the Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE), we look forward to being actively involved in this work as it moves forward, and are honored to be included in the process. We are committed to ensuring that the voice of both parents and practitioners will be included through the ACSE involvement.

      • Kathryn Turner 3 years ago3 years ago

        Count me in as a voluntary parent participant; with a SN child in the public school system for 9 years now. What are the necessary steps to become involved Commissioner Plate?

        • Gina Plate 3 years ago3 years ago

          Great to have your support, Kathryn. The best way to get involved is to follow the ACSE schedule and meeting agenda. You can find the information on the ACSE page from the CDE website: http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/as/acse.asp

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