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 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.