Sweeping change set for special education services

Sweeping change set for special education services

(Calif.) A blue ribbon panel created to help the state transform its special education system shared publicly last week 44 specific recommendations aimed ultimately at improving academic outcomes for students with disabilities.

Among the sweeping changes suggested by the Statewide Special Education Task Force: Require that new special education teachers be qualified to also teach in general classrooms, align student education plans to Common Core standards, and restructure the way the system and its programs are funded.

The task force, impaneled by the California State Board of Education just over a year ago, is wrapping up a detailed report that includes the recommendations, and is expected to release it in the next month or two. Until then, the panel is providing only the recommendations.

On Thursday, task force members spent the day vetting their ideas with the state’s Advisory Committee on Special Education, which played no official role in shaping the report but hopes to shepherd through some of its recommendations.

“This task force, they’ve worked hard. They have a baton, and they’re ready to hand that baton off to the next player or the next entity or the next stakeholder group that is interested in running with some or all of that report,” said Gina Plate, chair of the ACSE as well as senior special education advisor for the California Charter Schools Association.

“Our commission is in a very fortunate position in that we have been asked to be one of the recipients of that baton,” she added. “What that means, we don’t really know yet but we know that it is up to us to view and digest and make recommendations based on what is in alignment with our work and what we as an entity want to get involved with going forward.”

As noted, the state’s ultimate goal is to implement systemic changes that boost the academic achievement of its 690,000 special education students, still the lowest-performing subgroup in California.

Expenses for services to students with disabilities are considered one of the fastest-growing segments of the education budget. Special education in California cost nearly $8.7 billion in 2011-12, or about $22,300 per student – more than twice the $9,600 average cost per student in the mainstream population, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

State special education categorical funds covered the largest share of these costs (43 percent), combined with spending from local general purpose funds (39 percent) and federal special education funds (18 percent, or about $1.6 billion), the LAO reported in January of 2013.

“Over the past several years, a combination of increasing special education costs and relatively flat state and federal special education funding has resulted in local budgets covering an increasing share of these costs,” the LAO wrote in a report on special education in California.

In addition to pressing the federal government to fully fund its share of the total cost of special education, the state should also revise its own complex model of paying for these services, said the task force, offering several suggestions for updating formulas and equalizing spending across various agencies.

From providing quality early child care and preschool for all children to using broader disability definitions that increase federal funding, the recommendations span seven content areas: Early learning, evidence-based practices, assessment and accountability, educator preparation, finance, and family engagement.

Most of the proposals are rooted in the task force’s extensive review of proven practices that integrate services for students with disabilities into the general education classroom and deliver a model program that leads to:

  • Inclusion and access to core curriculum for all students,
  • Greater collaboration between special education and general education teachers,
  • Continuous assessment and use of Response to Intervention-type programs and
  • Targeted professional development.

Other changes would include aligning teacher preparation programs and licensing requirements so that all educators, regardless of specialty, have a “similar, competent educational foundation,” and shift credentialing to allow for instruction of all students by both special and general education teachers.

Educator prep programs would include instruction in Universal Design for Learning, statistics and data, digital literacy, instructional technology and “cultural and linguistic competency and responsiveness.” Incentive grants would be offered to teacher prep programs that embrace these changes, and special education teachers-in-training who commit to three years in the classroom would qualify for scholarships and student loan forgiveness.

All local educational agencies would adopt an overall strategy focused on providing instruction and assistance designed to address the needs – academic, socio-emotional, behavioral – of all children using targeted supports either in the classroom, in small groups or through one-on-one interaction. Known as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), this education model encompasses other student-targeted support programs, such as Response to Intervention (RtI), which promotes early identification of and assistance for students with learning and behavior needs.

Without programs such as RtI and others like it, experts say, thousands of students are often misdirected into the separate, more costly special ed stream when, if provided the proper instruction and supports, they could function and learn in the regular classroom as well as their peers.   

Other recommendations lay the ground work for establishing effective, data-driven assessment and accountability measures, as well as equalizing state support for special education “by overhauling SpEd (sic) financing and holding Local Education Agencies (LEAs) accountable for meeting SWD’s needs, as in the Local Control Accountability Plans.”

LCAPs are the vehicles through which districts must prove they are meeting state goals for educating children under the new school finance system, Local Control Funding Formula.

In reviewing the list of task force recommendations last week, some members of the state’s Advisory Commission on Special Education expressed dismay that they were not given the entire report to read and comment on before it goes to the state board.

Several members of the task force also sit on the ACSE, created to offer recommendations and advice to the SBE, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Legislature and the governor on new or continuing areas of research, program development and evaluation in California special education.

Task force members said the report, being written by a professional group paid for by several non-profit education foundations, is not yet complete.