The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

The Council and the District (Part 2)

By Frank Gruber

Last week I wrote that special education funding had become the "great minefield of education finance," and that the Santa Monica City Council would be well advised to stay out of it. That upset some readers, who seemed to think that I oppose giving children with learning disabilities the education, "free and appropriate, and in the least restrictive environment possible," that they deserve and that the law requires.

Maybe I should choose my metaphors better. I am not opposed to special education. Who could be? The laws that require it are good laws.

But that doesn't mean that special education hasn't had huge impacts on school budgets, including locally, and that funding special education isn't a political thicket, or a tar baby, or whatever metaphor you want to use.

The School Board has agonized over the issue for years, and the City Council would be irresponsible in the extreme to criticize the Board over one tiny aspect of a complex problem -- the confidentiality clauses the District includes in settlement agreements with the small minority of parents who don't accept the education plans the District proposes for their children.

The federal government that passed the law requiring "free and appropriate" education for all children never adequately funded it. It's the classic "unfunded mandate." California attempts to fund the mandate, but in the same manner it funds all education -- inadequately, and on a per capita basis that does not take into account the varying needs or generosity of different districts.

As a result, finite resources must be allocated among seemingly infinite needs -- those of children with special needs and those of children with just ordinary needs.

And who does the allocating? The District. Who runs the District? The School Board. Who elects the School Board? The people. What could be more political than that?

This is not just a local issue. A few years ago the then education columnist for the New York Times, Richard Rothstein (a former Santa Monica parent, if that means anything) wrote a column trying to answer a question often posed by conservatives who oppose increasing public school funding: has the increased spending on education since 1970 led to improved schools?

What Mr. Rothstein found, after correcting for inflation, was that since 1970 the real increase in per-student education spending had been about 50 or 60 percent. That sounds impressive, but about two-thirds of that increase was money spent for special education, to educate students who either did not attend school in 1970 or who had lesser disabilities that were not addressed in the bad old days.

Expenditures on the general school population had only increased in real terms about 15 to 20 percent over 30 years. As one might expect, Mr. Rothstein found that only correspondingly incremental improvements in student achievement had occurred during that time.

According to our District's "Average Daily Attendance" (ADA) data and other data for 2005-06 (the last year actual figures are available), of the District's enrollment of about 11,500, around 1,500 students received special education services -- about 13 percent. The statewide average is around 10 percent.

The needs of these children with disabilities range from minor speech impediments to autism or severe psychiatric problems, but most participate in the regular curricula at their schools, and receive their special education services as an augmentation. In 2005-06 the District counted only 359 students who received more than 50 percent of their education in special day classes, and only 46 had such serious disabilities that they needed to receive their educations in special schools outside of the District's facilities.

Even though most special education students are taught among their peers, special education is expensive and consumes a large amount of the District's budget. In 2005-06, of the School District's total expenditures of about $107 million, about $19.5 million was spent on special education -- about 18 percent.

Spending 18 percent of your budget on the 13 percent of your school population with special needs would not seem that high a premium, except for the fact that the $19.5 million does not include the costs of the "mainstream" education received by the 1,100 special ed students who are not in special day classes or attending out-of-district programs.

About half of the District's special education budget is offset by special education funds received from the state or federal governments. That leaves a large deficit, and in 2005-06 the contribution to special ed funding from the District's general fund was about $8.5 million.

What this means is that because the state and federal governments have failed to fund their special education mandate, more than 8 percent of the District's general fund -- about the same amount the District raises from the parcel tax -- pays for special education.

This is not to say that the kids don't deserve it, and they have a legal right to an "appropriate" education. But when the overall success or failure of the District is determined, for some parents (and others, including taxpayers), by how well the District closes the "achievement gap" for disadvantaged students, or, for other parents (who tend to vote in large numbers), by whether the curriculum is good enough to get their kids into Ivy League colleges, you can understand that the District cannot -- politically -- let special education expenditures run out of control.

Which is what was happening a few years ago. In the 2002-03 year, special expenditures in the District equaled $16.2 million and $5.75 million of that came from the general fund. In 2003-04, those numbers shot up: total expenditures increased 12 percent to $18.2 million and the contribution from the general fund increased a whopping 30 percent to $7.5 million. The District's per student expenditure on special ed was almost three times the state average.

Imagine you were then Superintendent John Deasy, who had staked his reputation on closing the achievement gap. Imagine you were scrambling to find more money to teach algebra to poor kids from the Pico Neighborhood, and you lose $1.75 million of general fund revenue to special ed.

What if in addition, notwithstanding your program's high costs relative to those of other districts, parents were complaining about the program's quality, and you were spending more than $300,000 in legal fees resolving disputes with them?

What if, as was the case, your program was in such a mess that the State Department of Education had cited you for failure to comply with state guidelines?

What do you do?

In Mr. Deasy's case, he asked the School Board, in Nov. 2004, for emergency authority to hire a specialist to take charge of the program. (see story) The District hired Tim Walker from the Glendale School District.

Since joining the district in early 2005, Mr. Walker has reduced the rate of increase in special ed expenditures to less than five percent in fiscal years 2005 and 2006, and he reduced the expenditure on lawyers about 90 percent, to $31,000 in 2005-06.

Mr. Walker has also become, not coincidentally, the lightning rod for the indignation of some parents who don't agree with the District's assessments of their children's needs. They consider him cold-hearted and dictatorial. Although, as reported by Ann Williams yesterday in The Lookout, fewer than 10 percent of parents challenge the District's proposed "Individual Education Plans" (IEPs) for their children, those that do have been vocal. (see story)

Most recently, of course, they have made an end run around a School Board they consider unresponsive to demand that the City Council use its leverage against the Board.

Although the immediate focus of these parents' anger is Mr. Walker's policy of including confidentiality clauses in the agreements the District negotiates with parents who don't accept the District's proposed IEPs, the bitterness precedes Mr. Walker's employment by the District.

Back in 2004, after receiving a negative internal report on the District's special education program, the School Board asked the Special Education District Advisory Committee (SEDAC) to draft a Strategic Plan for Special Education. Quite a number of parents conscientiously participated in this process; the Chair was Craig Hamilton, who has served the District admirably in many capacities in addition to the SEDAC, including the Financial Oversight Committee and the Prop. X Oversight Committee.

The SEDAC developed a plan, which is still available on the District's website [http://www.smmusd.org/info/pdf/SpecEdStratPln.pdf], that the SEDAC parents believed would improve the District's delivery of special education services and increase the learning of even severely disabled children.

However, the plan did not say much about costs. The drafters acknowledged that in the short run, the plan would require more expenditure, for investment in a "new paradigm" focusing on prevention and early intervention, but predicted that in the long term the plan would reduce costs.

The School Board "accepted" the plan, but the District never adopted its core recommendations. It has implemented parts of it, although not necessarily in a manner that pleases those who wrote the plan.

This columnist is not willing or qualified to say whether Mr. Walker's approach to special ed or the plan's suggestions are better. I can appreciate the District's reasons for confidentially clauses, and I can even imagine reasons why they might be good for the special ed families, but I also wonder if an open policy might be better -- whereby everyone, parents and the public, have access to the individual education plan for every special ed student (after obscuring their identities, of course).

One thing I won't do is second-guess parents of children with disabilities for trying to get what's best for their kids, although I also won't second-guess other parents for doing the same.

But I will second-guess the City Council if it thinks it can jump into this ongoing policy debate, take sides, and do anything useful.

Other than what I said last week -- give the District the money. The City has it, and the schools need it.


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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email frank@frankjgruber.net The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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