Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/ EdSource Today

Ordered by the federal government to elevate academics for students with disabilities, and by the state to raise low-income student achievement, the California Department of Education is working to create a unified system that will do both, a move that aims to bring special education students into every school district initiative to improve achievement.

The department is “building the basis of one coherent system,” Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, told the State Board of Education last week at its meeting.

For the first time, the California Department of Education’s special education division is planning to align new federal progress measures for students with disabilities with the state board’s system of evaluation, now being created, that will gauge success under California’s school finance system. That system, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, directs additional funds to districts to serve “high-needs” students, defined as low-income students, English learners and foster children.

“We are no longer going to have silos of accountability,” said Matt Navo, superintendent of the Sanger Unified School District and a member of the state Advisory Commission on Special Education. “You are going to have to talk about what you are doing for all kids, and then explain why or why not subgroups of students, including special education, have access to programs.”

Long an island in mainstream education because of its complex federal mandates and funding streams, special education is not explicitly named an area of focus in California’s school finance system. But 70 percent of students with disabilities are members of the high-needs groups that are intended to benefit from the new student supports, said Chris Drouin, interim director of the special education division of the California Department of Education. The 70 percent figure is an unduplicated count in which no student is counted more than once, even if the student belongs to several of the identified groups.

The data, he said, add to the case for a new level of collaboration between special education departments, teachers, administrators and parents as districts create and refine spending plans, known as Local Control and Accountability Plans. The plans are intended to document district efforts to improve outcomes for high-needs students, and Drouin said the state is interested in tracking data on the performance of special education students who also are in those subgroups.

“We are in a position to take a federally driven program and align it to be a major contributor to our work in a state-driven initiative,” Drouin said.

Yet obstacles to aligning federal and state accountability systems remain, said Connie Silva-Broussard, director of the State Performance Plan Technical Assistance Project, which helps districts meet federal special education performance targets. While districts are investing in an array of supports for high-needs students, including hiring counselors and introducing alternative methods for disciplining students, the federal government is focused on one metric – the test scores of students in special education, she said.

“I don’t believe it’s a real easy fit,” she said.

Special education in California has grown into a behemoth that largely operates outside the realm of everyday school administration, according to “One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students,” the final report of the Statewide Special Education Task Force in 2015. And the current system is broken, the report said, noting that the achievement levels of students with disabilities in California are among the lowest in all 50 states. But they need not be, according to Martha Thurlow, director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, a leading research organization.

Eighty to 85 percent of special education students are capable of the same achievement levels as other students “if they are given specially designed instruction, appropriate access, supports and accommodations” as required by federal law, according to a research report by Thurlow and others.

A more cohesive approach would allow all students to benefit from the instructional approaches, including small group learning and visual aids, that are used in special education, said Janice Battaglia, director of the Inclusion Collaborative at the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

“Just because students aren’t in special education doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to access those resources,” Battaglia said.

The details of how to absorb special education services into general education have yet to be worked out, said Gina Plate, chairwoman of the state Advisory Commission on Special Education. But the intention to do so is a significant shift, she said.

“This is the first time the state board and the superintendent are saying we are committed to merging our two separate systems into one system that serves all students,” Plate said. She told the state board, “Thank you for bringing special education into the fold.”


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  1. Deborah Blair Porter 4 months ago4 months ago

    So what does this say about California’s prior “assurances” over the past decade about how they were meeting the needs of this population, how their graduation rates were increasing (even when they weren’t) and how “robust” their accountability system already was? It says that we’ve been fed nothing more than bureaucratic fudging, tripe, blatant lies, all at the expense of yet another generation of California’s children with disabilities. It’s been how many years … Read More

    So what does this say about California’s prior “assurances” over the past decade about how they were meeting the needs of this population, how their graduation rates were increasing (even when they weren’t) and how “robust” their accountability system already was? It says that we’ve been fed nothing more than bureaucratic fudging, tripe, blatant lies, all at the expense of yet another generation of California’s children with disabilities. It’s been how many years since the IDEA was enacted? Forty years?!?!?

    Given that it was the leadership of the California Department of Education, as well as the former head of the Advisory Commission on Special Education who convinced the Public Schools Accountability Act Advisory Group in June 2013 that a special education certificate of completion was mathematically equal to a four-year high school diploma for purposes of quantifying the API, and that such an equivalent score sent a message that students with disabilities were “valued,” one is left to wonder if there will really be much change in California. It has been more than two years since the LCFF was enacted, yet no one can explain why students with disabilities were left out of the equation in the first place or how the funding for special education will be factored into accountability. The reality is that California presently has no accountability system, which really isn’t that much different that what has been the case for special education since at least 1999.

    Unfortunately, the notion that LCFF somehow will address special education students is California’s same old game of claiming funds already budgeted are supposed to cover an even larger pie. If the LCFF funding is for students who are English Learners, low income or foster youth, the fact that schools are getting funds for 70% of those kids for the issues they are facing arising out of their status as English learners, poverty or because they are moved from school to school, doesn’t mean their special education needs will be met when the funds are already allocated. And what about the other 30% of kids with disabilities who don’t happen to fall within those three groups? What are they? Chopped liver?

    So long as California’s Department of Education persists in trying to use one old threadbare coat to keep three kids warm and the State Board of Education acts as if that is just fine, nothing will change. Very very sad.

    Replies

    • Manuel 4 months ago4 months ago

      Ms. Porter, please note that simply saying that "unduplicated pupils" will get 70% of those funds is not reality. While the funds are allocated on that basis to LEAs, it does not follow that funds go directly to those students since LCFF does not have any "teeth" other than saying that the funds should go "proportionally" to them. In practice, this means districts are free to spend a fraction of those funds and call it a … Read More

      Ms. Porter, please note that simply saying that “unduplicated pupils” will get 70% of those funds is not reality. While the funds are allocated on that basis to LEAs, it does not follow that funds go directly to those students since LCFF does not have any “teeth” other than saying that the funds should go “proportionally” to them.

      In practice, this means districts are free to spend a fraction of those funds and call it a day. For example, LAUSD’s 2015-16 budget had roughly $1 billion in Supplemental and Concentration grants. But only $120 million of those dollars went directly to in-school programs, $17 million to other district-wide “programs,” and $20 million to centrally-defined school services, for a total of $157 million. Where is the proportionality on that?

      That same budget shows that LAUSD budgeted $1.6 billion for Special Ed costs, $969 million coming from the “Unrestricted Program,” with nearly $500 million coming from the Supplemental/Concentration grants. It is all an “accounting” trick: don’t fund Special Ed fully and force the districts to take the money from another pot that was set to allegedly fund another group. To the public, that makes the politicians and educrats look like caring individuals while the advocates are left to fight it out among themselves for a shrinking pie. That’s why the ACLU threatened to sue. So, yes, the children are chopped liver.

      The solution? Make the politicians and educrats accountable every step of the way. Passing a law is not enough if there is not enough funding. Even if there is not enough funding, giving “flexibility” to local officials almost guarantees that the funds will not be channeled to those in need. There will be some who argue that this will take us back to the days of “restricted programs” out of Sacramento. From where I sit, that was better than what we got now. Time to get some balance back.

      • Deborah Blair Porter 4 months ago4 months ago

        Manuel, I couldn't agree with you more, particularly with regard to your point that those students who are the focus of the LCFF have not benefited from the funding and also regarding "flexibility" for local education agencies which is the fundamental premise of the LCFF. That legislation was based on the belief that LEAs would do the right thing, rather than what is better for their local budgets and given that almost 80% of every … Read More

        Manuel, I couldn’t agree with you more, particularly with regard to your point that those students who are the focus of the LCFF have not benefited from the funding and also regarding “flexibility” for local education agencies which is the fundamental premise of the LCFF. That legislation was based on the belief that LEAs would do the right thing, rather than what is better for their local budgets and given that almost 80% of every education dollar goes to teacher salaries when California’s teachers are still struggling to master teaching of ALL our populations, well it’s obvious what happens with those budgets and the students as a result. I also agree with regard to making politicians accountable particularly for the funding, but that funding has to be based on the realities of education, the recognition that California’s children are California’s responsibility and not something to foist off on the federal government along with the claim that they can’t fund special education until the feds give more money. These are ALL our children and ALL our responsibility. I think the best step would start with a meaningful needs assessment, from the student up. Then, and only then, will we know what the need is and be able to figure the funding to address it. Thanks for the point and chance to clarify.

        • Manuel 4 months ago4 months ago

          In a perfect world, assessment of needs would be the first step in defining what the necessary resources should be. Alas, we don't have a perfect world. I am, however, disturbed by the apparently common belief you expressed about the cost of teachers. I have heard that number (80%) before but never have I heard where it comes from. But let me use LAUSD as a sample case: LAUSD's 2015-16 budget very explicitly shows that $2.64 … Read More

          In a perfect world, assessment of needs would be the first step in defining what the necessary resources should be. Alas, we don’t have a perfect world.

          I am, however, disturbed by the apparently common belief you expressed about the cost of teachers. I have heard that number (80%) before but never have I heard where it comes from. But let me use LAUSD as a sample case: LAUSD’s 2015-16 budget very explicitly shows that $2.64 billion have been earmarked to pay for teachers’ salaries + benefits (including SpEd). Given that the total operating budget expenses are roughly $7 billion, that’s not even 40%, let alone 80% as you state.

          Please note that I am not trying to imply anything about you with this observation. All I am trying to highlight is how budget numbers are thrown about by many parties sometimes to obfuscate the issue, other times because they truly do not know and go by what “experts” disseminate. But more often than not, educrats spin the numbers just so they can keep their “programs” running at the expense of someone else’s.

          The bottom line is non-availability of services for students is usually blamed on lack of funds. It seems to me that a significant part of the problem is that districts have been spending their funds on goods and services that are not directly relevant to what the funds were granted for. Indeed, there is “waste, fraud and abuse” like in any system, but the problem is exacerbated precisely because “flexibility” breeds a “lack of accountability.”

          Given that special education is not on everybody’s radar, that’s why it gets shunted to the side and parent advocates are left holding the bag. (That’s no different than what happens to English learners: for all those pronouncements, LAUSD, where 30% of its students are ELs, earmarked less than $75 million for specific services out of a $1 billion Supplemental/Concentration grant.) Maybe it is time to grab the pitchforks and torches instead of asking for meaningful assessment of needs.

          • Deborah Blair Porter 4 months ago4 months ago

            Ah, but the perfect world and its possibilities are part of the “high expectations” that the IDEA (and even California’s education code) contemplate, so that should be the target. As to the 80%, I am not “throwing about” some number nor did I cite to it to “obfuscate the issue”. While it is a figure I’ve heard “experts” mention, I do not rely on it simply because of that, rather it is a figure … Read More

            Ah, but the perfect world and its possibilities are part of the “high expectations” that the IDEA (and even California’s education code) contemplate, so that should be the target.

            As to the 80%, I am not “throwing about” some number nor did I cite to it to “obfuscate the issue”. While it is a figure I’ve heard “experts” mention, I do not rely on it simply because of that, rather it is a figure that comes directly from the budgets I’ve reviewed of the K-12 school district in my own community which I annually observed while my children sent to school there. However, from what I’ve seen with other neighboring school districts (hence the common belief), it is a typical figure among education agencies. We would point to that figure to show how little room there was for the sometimes additional services needed by students who were identified for special education, as well as how little funds there were for the extraordinary legal fees our school district paid to avoid (and instead of) providing the special education services these students were entitled to. Instead, as LAUSD is no common education agency perhaps what you know is likely an exception to the rule.

            As to your statement “The bottom line is non-availability of services for students is usually blamed on lack of funds. It seems to me that a significant part of the problem is that districts have been spending their funds on goods and services that are not directly relevant to what the funds were granted for” I agree 100 percent. This is why I argue against the many people who insist that special education would be better “if only” the federal government would comply with its promise to fund 40% of special education. First, there never was a “promise” (a whole separate issue), but considering the significant funds sent to California in the past forty years, one wonders how effectively those funds have been used, particularly given how poorly this student population performs. Also, an awful lot of the bloat in LAUSD is most likely legal fees paid to law firms to avoid providing the services all these kids need, as well as to support the various bureaucratic activities they use to justify what they do. Although LAUSD may be an exception to the rule with regard to the amount of its budget that goes to teacher salaries, its use of legal counsel to avoid providing services is not and I would refer you to the website EducationNotLitigation.org for an analysis of this hidden, but all too real issue.

  2. Christine Sinatra 4 months ago4 months ago

    Finally! Doing away with the "two- Class system " in education has been a long time coming. This will not only provide more comprehensive services and equity in access to all students, but it will also do away with the "your student" attitudes of some general educators. I have always believed that educators should all be taught the same skills and knowledge that encompass all learners so that they could embrace diversity without … Read More

    Finally! Doing away with the “two- Class system ” in education has been a long time coming. This will not only provide more comprehensive services and equity in access to all students, but it will also do away with the “your student” attitudes of some general educators. I have always believed that educators should all be taught the same skills and knowledge that encompass all learners so that they could embrace diversity without fear or the unwillingness to do so. This will unite true educators who value all learners.

  3. Manuel 4 months ago4 months ago

    Oh, my. The Legislature and Governor Brown excluded students in special ed from the list of those "who are more expensive" to educate for a reason. My cynical take is that they knew that there was not enough money in the budget to do that. Why do I feel that way? Because LAUSD, which has 10% of the public school students in California, has a major funding issue when it comes to funding special education. Back … Read More

    Oh, my.

    The Legislature and Governor Brown excluded students in special ed from the list of those “who are more expensive” to educate for a reason. My cynical take is that they knew that there was not enough money in the budget to do that. Why do I feel that way? Because LAUSD, which has 10% of the public school students in California, has a major funding issue when it comes to funding special education.

    Back in 2011-12, Special Education costs were still called an “encroaching” program. At that time, every one of the 506,209 students for which LAUSD was responsible (DataQuest reports a higher number but that’s because it includes students in independent charters) was “charged” $1,450 to pay for the Special Ed component, which served roughly 80,000 students. Compare that to what was set aside for each student for “school-site” costs: $5,018. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that Special Ed students are taking a disproportionate portion of the budget, no matter how you slice and/or label the costs.

    Back in those days, I recall a LAUSD Board Member claim from the dais at a meeting that the district was getting 10 cents from the feds and the state for every dollar spent on Special Ed. That ratio sounds outrageous because it is wrong: the amount is actually around 50 cents on the dollar. And even that is a problem: the funding gap is too large.

    That’s why then Superintendent Deasy, in the first year of full LCFF implementation, designated more than half of the Supplemental/Concentration grant to be spent on Special Education, arguing that a majority of the Special Ed students belong to one of the “counted” groups. This did not go well with groups fighting for equity as well as the ACLU who complained and forced the LA County Office of Education to delay approval of LAUSD’s LCAP. But Deasy prevailed, and the ACLU threatened a lawsuit if it happened again.

    And now State Superintendent of Public Instruction Torlakson wants to make things right? How is he going to do this? Will LCFF be modified by the Legislature to explicitly include Special Ed students? Will Governor Brown explicitly acknowledge the funding gap for the programs needed by Special Ed students? I personally doubt that any official will admit publicly and in writing that no one wants to pay the piper. (The feds have never even gotten close to the 40% they claimed they were going to pay but I have yet to hear any high ranking official demand they do.)

    Which brings me to the current push to “mainstream” these kids, all in the name of “justice.”

    From where I sit, this will be a disaster. Why? Because it won’t matter how much accountability is demanded from “regular teachers” when they won’t have the time to give differentiated instruction. For example, 4th and 5th grade classrooms in LAUSD have anywhere between 30 and 35 students. Middle school “academic” periods have an average of 34 students which climb to 43 students for 9-12 grades. With this level of enrollment, can anyone honestly expect “regular teachers” will be able to provide the differentiated instruction that Special Ed students are entitled to by law? As Ari below says, you can’t serve a feast with a jar of peanut butter and half a loaf of bread.

    But I am sure that the educrats will decree that every single student with an IEP will be mainstreamed, come hell or high water (and the creek don’t rise), which is already happening at LAUSD. The consequences will be that the very limited services these students are currently getting most likely will stop. And the neurotypical students will receive even less attention because the teacher will be heroically trying to provide what s/he can’t possibly deliver due to no training, no technology, no aide, and no time, not necessarily in that order.

    Yes, we will have, as Melody states below, more lawsuits. But before those lawsuits are resolved, teachers will be blamed, students will be denied an education, and parents will either be in tears or enraged over their inability to “talk to a monolith.” All the while those in leadership will be congratulating themselves “for bringing special education into the fold.”

  4. Jonathan Raymond 4 months ago4 months ago

    This issue is so much larger. Go visit a school in California and ask to see the special day class. Look at the children you see inside that classroom. Changing the culture of how and where we educate our children with disabilities will require a sea change. Look to places like Sacramento City, which has adopted an inclusive and co-teaching practice model despite the regulatory and financial hurdles. Getting this right benefits … Read More

    This issue is so much larger. Go visit a school in California and ask to see the special day class. Look at the children you see inside that classroom. Changing the culture of how and where we educate our children with disabilities will require a sea change. Look to places like Sacramento City, which has adopted an inclusive and co-teaching practice model despite the regulatory and financial hurdles. Getting this right benefits all children where the Feds say it matters (test scores) and what really counts – teaching children empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

  5. Melody Geroux 4 months ago4 months ago

    This seems like a way to dump kids with a variety of disabilities and needs into the regular education classroom and promise supports that are not ever actually provided. There is a reason it is called an INDIVIDUAL Education Plan. Since PL94-142 passed in 1972 and was never fully funded by the Federal Government, monies, rights, and services that parents and educators fought desperately to win for students are being eroded in an … Read More

    This seems like a way to dump kids with a variety of disabilities and needs into the regular education classroom and promise supports that are not ever actually provided. There is a reason it is called an INDIVIDUAL Education Plan. Since PL94-142 passed in 1972 and was never fully funded by the Federal Government, monies, rights, and services that parents and educators fought desperately to win for students are being eroded in an attempt to save money. Looks like it will be back to the courts. It’s about to get expensive for districts in lawsuits, rather than providing services.

  6. Ari 4 months ago4 months ago

    One of the big questions is how will we provide support and professional development for teachers to include their special education students, English learners, and students with emotional needs in their classroom lessons and environments? The needs in each classroom are becoming overwhelming and we are expected to serve a feast with a jar of peanut butter and half a loaf of bread.

    Replies

    • Jennifer 4 months ago4 months ago

      I agree, Ari... the expectations are ridiculous. I am frustrated by this 'movement', too, because I do not want to be a special education teacher. I did not receive that specific training and credential because I wanted to work in a regular education setting. The crazy part, to me, is the idea that some folks actually believe we (gen ed teachers) can some how accomplish better results than our special ed teacher/peers. They have the … Read More

      I agree, Ari… the expectations are ridiculous.

      I am frustrated by this ‘movement’, too, because I do not want to be a special education teacher. I did not receive that specific training and credential because I wanted to work in a regular education setting.

      The crazy part, to me, is the idea that some folks actually believe we (gen ed teachers) can some how accomplish better results than our special ed teacher/peers. They have the advanced training needed to support special ed learners, and we will have a much greater number of students to serve… seems like a lose-lose, instead of a win-win.

  7. Elizabeth Geyer 4 months ago4 months ago

    This is an exciting proposal. It would be a wonderful change to be able to access resources that are needed through funding that we have not had access to. I do not have a document camera in my lab. My elementary Resource Services students just yesterday requested this resource. I have had to write grants to get the technology I do have in my room. I feel blessed to … Read More

    This is an exciting proposal. It would be a wonderful change to be able to access resources that are needed through funding that we have not had access to. I do not have a document camera in my lab. My elementary Resource Services students just yesterday requested this resource. I have had to write grants to get the technology I do have in my room. I feel blessed to have the technology, yet it would really help bring our students along to be able to use the same resources as they are used to in their general ed classrooms. The students at my school do receive some great assistance through our parent board, yet you are correct. The system is broken. We need to bring our students along. I am very happy this conversation is taking place!

  8. Nancy LaCasse 4 months ago4 months ago

    There are numerous studies that discuss the benefits of early intervention such as preschool programs for students with disabilities. Early learning opportunities provide significant educational and social benefits to children that can result in significant future cost savings to the state and schools during the remainder of the student's educational career. Presently, California does not provide preschool funding for aged three- and four year old children with disabilities beyond the State Preschool Grant which … Read More

    There are numerous studies that discuss the benefits of early intervention such as preschool programs for students with disabilities. Early learning opportunities provide significant educational and social benefits to children that can result in significant future cost savings to the state and schools during the remainder of the student’s educational career. Presently, California does not provide preschool funding for aged three- and four year old children with disabilities beyond the State Preschool Grant which covers less than a quarter of the statewide average cost. SB 1071 (Allen) would create a special education preschool funding adjustment to offset some of this excess cost. It’s time to invest in our most vulnerable children!

  9. Deborah Lucker-Davis 4 months ago4 months ago

    It is about time there was accountability for failing special education students. I see transcripts all the time where the ONLY class passed by our special education students is their resource room teacher. All “F’S” by their regular education teachers. It is a crime. Regular teachers need to be educated as to how to differentiate instruction for their special needs population and then held accountable to do it!

    Replies

    • Jennifer 4 months ago4 months ago

      I do not agree with your assumption that general education teachers are failing special education students when said students earn failing grades in their classes. I have watched mainstreamed students struggle because there is a huge gap in the expectations between special ed and regular ed classrooms (because of teaching styles and higher expectations, not a change in or lack of accommodations). There often isn't a sufficient transition plan in place to support these students, … Read More

      I do not agree with your assumption that general education teachers are failing special education students when said students earn failing grades in their classes. I have watched mainstreamed students struggle because there is a huge gap in the expectations between special ed and regular ed classrooms (because of teaching styles and higher expectations, not a change in or lack of accommodations). There often isn’t a sufficient transition plan in place to support these students, who are often placed into a class without the gen ed teacher being involved on any level.

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