Saving Money by Shortchanging a Special Education

For 13 years [we have] known what we should do for Special Education and we have ignored it as a district.”

-Ramon C. Cortines, LAUSD Superintendent

It cannot be denied that Special Education costs a lot of money. In fact, the Independent Financial Review Panel says that it “is one of the fastest growing parts of the LAUSD budget.” When done well, Special Education can be labor intensive, requiring classrooms with extremely low staff-to-student ratios and sometimes even more one-on-one time. Experts in speech and occupational therapy are needed to fortify regular instructional time. The District must make accommodations so that those with physical disabilities can have full access to school facilities. Transportation is needed to get students to the schools that provide their required programs. These services do not come cheap, but they are all essential components to provide a Special Education.

With the LAUSD constantly crying poverty, it is easy to see why parents who have children without special needs look suspiciously at these programs. When your child is sitting in an overcrowded classroom, it is natural to ask why the Special Education classroom down the hall has an adult for every child. The least empathetic go further and look longingly to a time in the past when children with disabilities “would stay home with their moms [so] the schools were not financially impacted.” Helping these children reach their full potential holds no importance when one believes that Special Education is the reason that we do not have the money “in schools to properly educate our kids anymore.”  

Unfortunately, the Report of the Independent Financial Review Panel that was presented at the November 10, 2015, LAUSD Board meeting played into this us versus them point of view that pits Special Education students against those in General Education. The panel came to the conclusion that District must guard against being “over inclusive,” especially in the case of “African-Americans and Latino kids [who] are over represented among Special Education students.” In reality, too many parents are forced to hire lawyers to make sure that their students receive the proper services. The panel erred by operating under the assumption that all conditions requiring  Special Education are somehow transitional. This let them assume that the District can “reduce the cost curve which is threatening to grow way out of control” by getting students  “mainstreamed as quickly as possible.” Conditions like autism are not the equivalent of broken bones. A cast is not available that can reset my daughters’ brains and send them on their way to General Ed classrooms.

Somehow, the panel ignored the most pressing threat to the LAUSD when developing this document. As Eli Broad proceeds with his plan to divert half of all students into his own private district of charter schools which cherry pick the easiest to educate students, the LAUSD will find that a greater percentage of their students will need Special Education services. For example, in Granada Hills Charter High School Special Education students make up 7% of the population, while 12.7% of students in the LAUSD receive Special Education services. By making  their focus on making sure that  “all students have access to all academic programs,” they are clearly serving the most highly functioning population, leaving those who are not on an academic track, and the related costs, to the District. This is the problem that must be solved if the District is to avoid bankruptcy.

Also missing from the document was any evaluation of how the District’s efforts to deprofessionalize Special Education teachers is affecting the education of students. In September, Dr. Richard Vladovic stated that he believed that Special Education professionals are over-licensed despite the fact that he admits that when evaluating Special Education training he does not “know when you get down to the child level if it makes that much difference if they take two theory classes and do 600 hours versus 1,200 and take three theory classes.” If he was a parent of a child being taught by this professional, he might be more insistent that this question be answered before demanding a change. During the November 10th meeting the Board “ratified a contract with Teach for America (TFA) to provide trainees to fill 25 teaching positions in Special Education.” Instead of hiring highly trained professionals with experience in providing students the best possible education, the District will bring in interns from a program where “fellows get five weeks of intensive summer training” before being sent into the classroom. They are also not likely to stay long enough to get the experience that will make them good Special Education teachers since 87 percent of the participants in TFA “say they don’t plan on remaining teachers throughout their careers” and “25 percent of them said they would quit teaching after the current school year.”

If “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,”  then the LAUSD’s treatment of those in need of Special Education services is a giant black mark against our society. The District “has been under federal court oversight since 1996 for systemic non-compliance of Special Education law,” but still cannot figure out that establishing value for these programs is more important than blind cost cutting. Unless, they can do better, the quality of education for all students and the fiscal health of the district is at risk.