Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource
A mixed class of students, some with special needs, learn music in the Coronado Unified School District.

The state should dismantle its system for distributing special education funding for California’s 718,000 students with disabilities and send the money – billions of dollars – directly to local school districts, according to a much anticipated report that’s expected to draw the attention of Gov. Jerry Brown and state education leaders.

The recommendations, made by researchers at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California and released Tuesday, would upend the way special education finance has worked in the state for nearly 40 years and potentially put out of business 133 regional special education agencies known as Special Education Local Plan Areas, or SELPAs.

State money for special education would be folded into the Local Control Funding Formula, completing Brown’s goal of creating a unified funding system for all children. Funding earmarked for students with disabilities would continue to be spent for general special education, but districts would have “no firm restrictions on use,” the report recommended. Districts would have more flexibility to respond to individual needs earlier, before formally designating students as having disabilities.

“We recognize some may find this option threatening,” said the PPIC report’s authors, led by Laura Hill and Paul Warren. “Nevertheless, we view it as a critical step towards a more integrated system of special and general education.”

If Brown and the Legislature were to adopt the recommendations, school districts would face new challenges to ensure students are properly identified as needing services, provide the necessary services, and report data on the demographics of students in special education to state and federal governments.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst called the recommendations “bold and provocative.” He is to participate in a panel discussion on the proposal at noon Tuesday at PPIC’s Sacramento office.

Special education has long been an island in education. Because of financing complexities and federal and state special education mandates, Brown left special education out of the Local Control Funding Formula law in 2013. The $12 billion special education budget in California in 2014-15 – a mix of district, state and federal funds – inadequately served students, according to the final report of the Statewide Task Force on Special Education this past year.

The rights of students with special needs and their families are dictated by complex federal laws. And the academic performance of students – the majority of whom are not intellectually impaired but must overcome speech and language disorders or learning disabilities – lags their peers. The Statewide Task Force on Special Education issued a call for training teachers to co-teach with special education teachers to meet the needs of many students in one classroom.

The task force cited the same major financing problems that the PPIC report identified.

Inequitable funding: SELPAs are funded based on outdated 20-year-old formulas. There are wide disparities, with the top fifth of SELPAs getting 40 percent more funding per student than the bottom fifth.

Inadequate funding: In order to discourage overidentifying students with disabilities, SELPAs are funded based on districts’ overall student enrollment, not the percentage of special education students – a formula PPIC wouldn’t change. However, Brown has put more money into the Local Control Funding Formula and kept special education funding flat over the past decade, PPIC said. And funding has not responded to the increase in students with severe disabilities, such as autism.

PPIC estimated that raising per-student funding to the level of better-funded SELPAs and addressing higher costs generated by rising caseloads would cost between $670 million and $1.1 billion annually.

Poor accountability: “California does not hold SELPAs accountable for student success in any formal way,” PPIC wrote. The state doesn’t set performance goals for special education, and SELPAs aren’t required to track student performance, the report said. Each SELPA has its own formula for distributing state and federal funding. “We were unable to find budget and administrative plans on the internet for more than half of the state’s multidistrict SELPAs,” the report said.

Districts would be held more accountable by incorporating special education into school districts’ three-year spending documents, known as Local Control and Accountability Plans, the report said. Districts would be asked to set goals and chart the progress of students receiving special education services. Parents would be better able to share their perspectives, the report said.

The task force did not recommend the demise of SELPAs. In a paper last month, the task force’s co-executive directors, Vicki Barber, former director of the El Dorado County SELPA, and Maureen O’Leary Burness, former director of four different Northern California SELPAs, suggested that fixing the current system would be the preferable option.

“Troubling issues would have to be addressed to avoid unintended consequences” of moving toward direct district funding, Barber said in an interview Monday. She said SELPAs negotiate contracts for services, spread the costs of serving students with very expensive needs, and provide expertise and administrative services. Most of the state’s districts have fewer than 2,500 students and would struggle to provide these functions on their own, she said.

PPIC said the possible roles of SELPAs, without directly funding them in the future, would need to be redefined and clarified. Under the new approach, districts presumably could choose to keep funding reconstituted SELPAs for some functions, create new multidistrict agreements or contract services with providers of their choice.

Kirst had encouraged PPIC to do the study, which was funded by the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation and the Stuart Foundation.

Cid Van Koersel, program director for WarmLine Family Resource Center in Sacramento, a federally funded parent training and information center for special education, said parents don’t know much about how special education is financed.

“Ninety percent of the time, families have never heard the word ‘SELPA,’” Van Koersel said. But she said they do know the services they want and need, and she wondered what would happen if the SELPA funding system disappeared. The local planning areas fund programs through county offices of education, she said, including programs for students who live in districts that are too small to provide services.

“What about the SELPA-run preschool for children with autism?” Van Koersel asked. “Who is going to provide that program?”

EdSource receives funding from several foundations, including the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation and the Stuart Foundation. EdSource maintains sole editorial control over the content of its coverage. 

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  1. Christine 5 days ago5 days ago

    Although I believe that separating the distribution of funding from oversight would be a good thing in the long run, SELPAs provide a heck of a lot more than doling out the funding to districts for special education. The resources, the training, the understanding of complex special education law, the oversight to make sure districts are taking care of special needs students - SELPAs are NEEDED! As a chair of a SELPA CAC I know … Read More

    Although I believe that separating the distribution of funding from oversight would be a good thing in the long run, SELPAs provide a heck of a lot more than doling out the funding to districts for special education. The resources, the training, the understanding of complex special education law, the oversight to make sure districts are taking care of special needs students – SELPAs are NEEDED! As a chair of a SELPA CAC I know how important SELPAs are, and how they can truly help students, even if they often seem invisible. California is a huge state, and we need an entity between the level of district and state that is focused on special education.

  2. A Program Specialist 3 months ago3 months ago

    I have been encouraged over the past several months that finally there is an understanding at the state level that what is best for all students is the creation of one unified system designed to meet the needs of all students within it. Finally, we are creating programs and supports within a multi-tiered system. That being said, there will continue to be a great need for SELPAs to act as a resource … Read More

    I have been encouraged over the past several months that finally there is an understanding at the state level that what is best for all students is the creation of one unified system designed to meet the needs of all students within it. Finally, we are creating programs and supports within a multi-tiered system. That being said, there will continue to be a great need for SELPAs to act as a resource not only for districts, but for families as well. SELPAs have the unique ability to help find common ground, be the voice for the student when families and school districts are at odds. Not only do SELPAs meet the needs of both the districts and families, they are also relied upon by their districts to provide the professional development and training that districts, especially the smaller ones, are unable to do.

  3. Paul at PPIC 3 months ago3 months ago

    Just to correct the record. Contrary to Sam’s assertion, the PPIC report does not recommend eliminating SELPAs.

  4. Sam Neustadt 3 months ago3 months ago

    I found it interesting that PPIC opted to select a parent, Kim Connor, for the panel, who shared her personal experience from 34 years ago. Ms. Connor and her family were not treated well in their plight to obtain the services they desired for their daughter. She commented that she didn't know what a SELPA was at the time. In fact, Sacramento City USD is a single district SELPA, thus the district and … Read More

    I found it interesting that PPIC opted to select a parent, Kim Connor, for the panel, who shared her personal experience from 34 years ago. Ms. Connor and her family were not treated well in their plight to obtain the services they desired for their daughter. She commented that she didn’t know what a SELPA was at the time. In fact, Sacramento City USD is a single district SELPA, thus the district and SELPA were one in the same.

    As the study advocated for the elimination of SELPAs, one can only wonder if the family might have had a better experience if the district benefitted from the oversight and additional dispute resolution interventions afforded by membership in a multi-district SELPA. Instead, their case was litigated in the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, at great expense to the state. Ironically, PPIC invited a parent perspective that was 34 years out of date, which actually made an argument contrary to their own recommendation regarding the elimination of SELPAs altogether.

  5. Bobby Shoutz 3 months ago3 months ago

    Concerning the article about special ed funding and the way the SELPA now operates: I work as an information tech for a county office of education. My job allows me to work with both CASEMIS, a database that collects information on special education students in a SELPA, and the statewide CALPADS system that requires my updates from our local database for schools run by the office of ed. In working with CALPADS and the trainings they give … Read More

    Concerning the article about special ed funding and the way the SELPA now operates:

    I work as an information tech for a county office of education. My job allows me to work with both CASEMIS, a database that collects information on special education students in a SELPA, and the statewide CALPADS system that requires my updates from our local database for schools run by the office of ed.

    In working with CALPADS and the trainings they give each year, I know that CASEMIS is planned to be merged into CALPADS. Having worked here since the inception of CALPADS, it only makes sense since CALPADS has always been touted as the “one-stop shop” for all student information in the state of California.

    I saw issues arising such as: In my SELPA role, I see all special ed kids in our small county via SEIS, an online system that collects information of students’ Individualized Education Plans or IEPs. Those kids are reported twice a year thru CASEMIS. In my district role for the Office of Ed, I see only kids that are in our four little schools (two charters, a court school, and the regional special ed kids) that are reported to CALPADS based on an “information day” on the first Wednesday of October each year.

    My problem was that if CASEMIS was getting swallowed by CALPADS, how was I going to get SELPA report information when I did not have access to CALPADS information in each district (something I only have at my own district) once CASEMIS went away.

    Also, how were they going to combine two report dates for CASEMIS into one date that CALPADS recognized. Thru our current trainings, they have a pretty aggressive full implementation timeline of 2020 when CASEMIS will be absorbed into CALPADS. From what I understand, the dates for CASEMIS are going to be modified to use the first Wednesday in October or “information day.”

    I continued to have issues with how this was going to work, but your article made sense. If districts and not the SELPA will be getting the money, they will be reporting their own information to the SELPA. At least that’s how I see it.

    The idea of an all-in-one database that CALPADS is trying to be is a great idea in my opinion but one not without growing pains. CALPADS has been around for almost 10 years and is still trying to refine itself to accommodate so many different types of student information. Although I’m sure that the districts will love the dollars coming to them from the state, I’m not so sure that the information techs at each district are going to enjoy the extra work that special ed will add to their job. Most info techs have many other duties during the day.

  6. A SpEd Admin 3 months ago3 months ago

    SELPAs run differently throughout the state. Some are hands off, some are known to provide extensive professional development to special educators and some are just worthless. A few districts are large enough to be their own SELPA such as Mt Diablo Unified. It depends on the leadership, vision and direction of the individual SELPAs. Poor leadership and stale professional development options from many SELPAs and the state-run Diagnostic Centers make many districts want to scream and defect!

  7. el 3 months ago3 months ago

    One thing I would have liked to have read in this article is the rationale for why it is that the report authors think it would be beneficial to fund districts directly. The idea of making the funding more rational and more equitable to the need is orthogonal to the idea of sending the money directly to the district. The report does eventually get into some of their reasons at the end. I have some concerns … Read More

    One thing I would have liked to have read in this article is the rationale for why it is that the report authors think it would be beneficial to fund districts directly. The idea of making the funding more rational and more equitable to the need is orthogonal to the idea of sending the money directly to the district. The report does eventually get into some of their reasons at the end.

    I have some concerns about incorporating this money into the LCAP process, if that is what is envisioned here. As is noted, these special needs students can have very individual and very expensive needs. In small districts, individual students aren’t masked by a bucket of other students, and I am concerned that we might end up significantly violating the privacy of students in this category. I am not sure that goals and expenditures on a student by student basis are appropriately discussed in a large meeting, especially if there is tension about where money should be spent.

    I would rather see it, a la LCFF, as money following the student. So if Student A needs a full time aide and additional facilitation, and dedicated transport, the state should be sending $50k to educate that student at whatever school that student attends. I realize there are issues of who decides and the great sense that people will game the system to their own personal best advantage, but IMHO this is the fairest way to fund it.