Counties may not be best to serve alternative students

Counties may not be best to serve alternative students

(Calif.) In an effort to improve educational services to students incarcerated in the jail system, lawmakers should give districts greater control over the money spent on court schools as well as greater responsibility over their performance.

The proposal, promulgated Monday in a report from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst, calls for shifting the money for schooling juveniles from county offices of education to the districts where the students came from. The LAO suggested that state law be changed so that districts could choose alternative providers of services other than the county, based on what is best for the students.

“Districts often are closer to these students than the counties are,” said Ken Kapphahn, a senior fiscal and policy analyst with the LAO. “And if the accountability is going back to the districts,  we think that how well the counties are doing to educate the students will reflect back on the districts and bring the districts into the conversation a little bit more.”

Under the state constitution, each county must have a superintendent of schools, which is responsible for a number of services. By far the biggest is overseeing court schools, also known as community schools, which serve jailed students. Not surprisingly, the court schools are among the lowest performing in the public education system, even though the state provides about $180 million a year to pay for the programs.

County superintendents are also required by law to review academic and budget plans submitted by each of the local educational agencies in their jurisdictions. Further, county offices are required to help ensure school personnel have proper credentials and that the physical status of schools is well maintained.

Although not specifically required, county offices take on a number of other responsibilities voluntarily. They are often involved with coordinating special education programs while also providing staff development, data support and legal services.

The LAO said that the current system of funding counties directly for serving incarcerated students is problematic. For one, “it detaches these students from their districts of residence and creates limited incentives for school districts to oversee the quality of students’ education while incarcerated,” the LAO said.

The arrangement also overlooks the ability of other groups that could provide the services better.  

“Though many COEs currently have a longstanding role serving these students and over time have established relationships and cost-sharing agreements with county jails and probation departments, other groups, particularly large school districts, could develop similar expertise, relationships, and agreements,” the authors of the report said. “Moreover, allowing districts to have some influence on the educational provider of court schools might over time improve program quality and reduce program costs.”

Additionally, the LAO proposed changes to how students who are on probation or expelled from class are served. Under the current system, counties are generally assumed to be best positioned to handle these students because they can “achieve economies of scale (larger, better, less costly programs) by pulling all these students together on a single site.”

But the LAO said county community schools often are small and difficult to hold accountable for student outcomes.

“Regarding size, we found that at least 20 percent of county community schools serve 20 or fewer students,” the LAO said. “Schools serving very few students often report costs per student that are two to three times greater than the average amount spent to educate students in district alternative education settings. Additionally, regarding academic opportunities and outcomes, we found no clear, compelling evidence that county community schools necessarily offer students better educational opportunities or have better student results than district-run alternative schools serving similar students.”