Special Ed-Credit: iStock / EVAfotografie
A child with Down Syndrome draws a picture.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst called a report urging California officials to dismantle the current special education funding system “provocative and bold.” After listening to two hours of the public’s reactions at a hearing in Redwood City last week, Kirst could add the phrase “and feared.”

Parents of children with disabilities and special education teachers and administrators said they oppose the recommendation, which would eliminate direct funding of regional agencies that currently allocate special education money, coordinate services and monitor complaints. Under the proposal, the money would be sent directly to school districts to administer, as recommended in a report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, concluded that adding special education to the Local Control Funding Formula would be consistent with the principle of holding school districts accountable for the progress of all students. Students with disabilities would become another category of students receiving extra dollars, along with English learners, low-income children and foster youths. The amount of special education dollars wouldn’t change, but districts, which already fill in large gaps in federal and state special education funding, would have more latitude in deciding how to spend some of the money.

That prospect made parents nervous. As they had in two raucous hearings in Sacramento and Los Angeles, parents of special education students were emphatic that districts shouldn’t be trusted to do right for children who require expensive services for disabilities. Some exceeded their three-minute testimony limit to detail their anguishing battles with districts over services for their children. They said they were angry that researchers didn’t ask them for their perspectives. Only then, parents said, would the researchers understand why parents are worried about the proposal that would give districts more control over dollars.

Paul Warren was the chief researcher for the Public Policy Institute report. He is a retired policy analyst and director of the Legislative Analyst’s Office specializing in education finance and policy. After listening to parents’ criticism, he acknowledged that in retrospect “it would have been a good idea to seek out parents.” That was the only remark of his that parents applauded; the clapping was loud.

“No one in special education is confident there would be the same level of services” that students currently get, said Alida Fisher, who serves on the community advisory committee for special education for the San Francisco Unified School District. Many districts, which legally have to cover substantial shortfalls in state and federal revenue for special education services, already face financial pressures providing services for general students. Adding special education to the mix “would be one more instance of pitting parents against each other” over insufficient funding, Fisher said.

Christine Case-Lo, the mother of an autistic child in Mountain View and the founder of the Learning Challenges Committee for the area PTA, said that districts in the state have shown “patterns of bad behavior,” forcing parents of special education students to hire lawyers and turn to the federal Office of Civil Rights to obtain services for their children.

Most states fund special education by sending money directly to school districts either in their financing formulas or through restricted funding. As the nation’s largest state, California created 133 intermediaries called Special Education Local Plan Areas, or SELPAs.

California created the agencies to ensure that all students with disabilities are educated in compliance with federal law, which guarantees a “free and appropriate” education for students with disabilities. State law hands the agencies a range of responsibilities and procedures. They coordinate services, budget money, train district personnel, provide data to the state and monitor compliance with the law to protect students’ rights – functions that most districts lack the expertise to provide. Some also pool money to cover expensive disabilities, like severe autism, that small and medium-sized districts couldn’t afford.

Some of the agencies serve individual, usually large, districts, while others are regional, managing services for counties and several districts.

Benjamin Picard, superintendent of the Sunnyvale School District, said that if the agencies were dissolved, “districts would have to add staff and continue much of what SELPAs do with a loss of advantages of scale.”

The Public Policy Institute of California did the study at the encouragement of Kirst and Linda Darling-Hammond, a retired Stanford University professor who chairs the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Both have pointed to low graduation rates and poor academic performance of students with disabilities, who comprise about 1 in 8 California students, as cause to reexamine how services are funded and provided.

No uniformity in services

PPIC found that the agencies operate with little transparency, even though they’re governed by boards made up of school district representatives. “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 the agencies aren’t required to track student performance. PPIC couldn’t find budgets or administrative plans online for more than half of multidistrict agencies. There also are no guidelines for parceling out money. Some pool resources to cover expenses that exceed $100,000, while others divvy up funds uniformly per student.

Because of its complex financing, the Legislature left special education funding out of the Local Control Funding Formula. PPIC suggested that folding it in, while encouraging special education parents’ participation in a district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, would heighten the focus on student results. Districts would have flexibility to use special education funds to treat students’ learning and emotional problems early, before they’re formally identified, potentially saving money later, said Paul Warren, an expert in school finance and lead author of the study. Regional agencies might continue to exist, but they’d function differently, he said. They might continue serving small districts, or administer money for students with severe disabilities.

But special education parents view funding flexibility as a euphemism for diverting money that should be spent on their children. And agency administrators question whether district control would be an improvement.

Leslie Anido, a special education teacher with the Santa Clara County Office of Education, said that changing the allocation method would mask, rather than remedy, funding deficiencies. Rolling the money into the funding formula “could disrupt services for students with disabilities” if districts lack specialists in speech and physical needs and decide not to fund them.

Anido serves on a committee on special education for the California Teachers Association, which also opposes a fundamental restructuring of financing.

Robert Stout, director of special education for the Alameda County Office of Education, said the funding formula is still in its infancy, “a shiny new thing right out of the box,” without a track record. Federal law requires that districts at least maintain the same level of special education funding from year to year, but parents worry their kids would come up short if special education has to compete with teacher raises in the budget mix.

Districts’ costs escalate

Since 2005-06, school districts' portion of paying for special education in California has risen 100 percent, from $4.1 billion to $8.1 billion. Overall costs of special education have increased 55 percent, from $8.5 to $13.17 billion.

Source: Coalition for Adequate Funding for Special Education

Since 2005-06, school districts’ portion of paying for special education in California has risen 100 percent, from $4.1 billion to $8.1 billion. Overall costs of special education have increased 55 percent, from $8.5 to $13.17 billion.

There’s already tension. Spending on special education rose to about $13 billion statewide last year, and districts’ share of it has risen sharply. The federal government, which once promised to fund 40 percent of states’ special education costs, funds 9 percent in California. The state’s General Fund, which funded 39 percent of the cost before the Great Recession, now funds 29 percent, as Brown has made the funding formula a priority. Districts’ share has risen from 48 to 62 percent over the same period, since 2005-06.

The state funds special education based on total student enrollment, not by numbers of special education students – a strategy intended to discourage over-identification of disabilities. But in most districts, the proportion of students with disabilities has outpaced overall enrollment growth, and many of the new diagnoses are for autism and severe problems, adding further budget pressure. 

Case-Lo, the Mountain View parent, said she would support district funding only if regional agencies then served as “a neutral organization to represent parents against the school district” – ­ a role they don’t now provide.

PPIC and the 2015 Statewide Task Force on Special Education did make recommendations that parents and teachers like. Both said the state should increase funding to screen and treat infants and preschool children with disabilities and fold funding for mental health into the formula for special education. The report also recommends ending disparities in funding for Special Education Local Plan Areas, which differ by as much as $500 per student.

Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, is sponsoring Assembly Bill 312 to move toward equalizing funding. But the California Department of Finance, which was interested enough in PPIC’s ideas for district control to hold the statewide hearings, may not support more money without financing reforms. Prospects for that appear unlikely this year.

After listening to continuous criticism of PPIC’s report at the Redwood City hearing, Jeff Bell, who oversees education policy for the Department of Finance, said only that the department “currently has no proposal to dissolve SELPAs.”

“We’re talking about improving services for students,” he said, and encouraged audience members to send ideas to the department.

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  1. Miriam 5 months ago5 months ago

    I read this summary of the public hearing with great interest. It highlights the nettlesome (irreparable?) challenges we face in trying to change or improve a system. Surely, the can be vastly improved. I have two questions. 1. Did the committee consider or hear from general education parents and teachers? What is their view? If not, I do wonder why that is. The headline speaks of "parents," but the story itself … Read More

    I read this summary of the public hearing with great interest. It highlights the nettlesome (irreparable?) challenges we face in trying to change or improve a system. Surely, the can be vastly improved. I have two questions.

    1. Did the committee consider or hear from general education parents and teachers? What is their view? If not, I do wonder why that is. The headline speaks of “parents,” but the story itself focuses only on parents of students with disabilities. As I see it, the committee should hear from all stakeholders who care about our public schools.

    2. Did the committee consider (or even acknowledge) that the current legal system, a “private enforcement” adversarial system set up by Congress and enforced in all states, charging parents with enforcing their and their children’s rights and often requiring them to fight their schools – ay be at the root of this challenge. If not, I wonder why that is.

    As I see it, to get to true systemic reform, taking both of these steps will be helpful in solving the quandary we are in. We need to expand the set of “stakeholders” who have a stake in how schools are funded and resources allocated, and we need to confront the flaws in the current legal system.

    Your thoughts?