Special ed: a big drain on the district’s budget, but a potential for attracting more students
Mike Szymanski | May 18, 2016
Special education students present one of the biggest costs for LA Unified, but administrators are considering ways to capitalize on the district’s successes with that population.
Special ed is identified as one of the three major deficit drivers on the school budget, along with pension costs and retiree benefit costs. The discussions included better methods of labeling students with disabilities, how to lower costs working with those students and possibly suing the state and federal governments to help pay for them.
The estimated annual cost to educate a student with disabilities is $8,275 more than a general education student. A general education student costs $11,798 per year, so a student with disabilities costs a total of $20,073.
The second-largest school district in the nation also has the largest population of special education students in the country, at 72,973 students, excluding those in independent charters.
“We face issues and challenges for this population with inadequate funding from the federal piece and the state piece,” said Superintendent Michelle King.
Chief Financial Officer Megan Reilly said that only 60 percent of the $1.5 billion in costs is covered by the federal and state money. She said, “There is a perception we have the money to cover all our special education students, but we don’t.”
School board President Steve Zimmer, who has personally lobbied both Washington, D.C., and Sacramento politicians for a more fair share of the special ed money, said the district is at the forefront of trying to get the necessary money to cover the costs.
Board member Monica Ratliff suggested, “Why don’t we sue?”
LA Unified chief attorney David Holmquist said he would take another look at the possibility of doing that but said, “I don’t think a lawsuit will solve this problem.”
This is the second of five meetings King is holding to report to the school board members on the budget situation, and to ask for guidance in shaping next year’s budget that must be voted on in June.
All of this falls on the backdrop of an Independent Financial Review Panel that issued a report last November spelling out harsh financial realities coming up in the next few years and offering suggestions to stop looming deficits. Some of the school board members expressed a need to react to the specifics in the report more directly.
“I would like to know what the numbers are if we don’t do something recommended in that report, and so we can say we can’t do this for this reason, and, in order to achieve that it would take A, B and C,” said Ratliff. Board members Monica Garcia and Richard Vladovic agreed.
“When we do really a great job we don’t have to market it, people want to come,” Garcia said. “And even though we do have inadequate support from the government and despite really hard circumstances this organization has remained committed and never abandoned these kids in the most need. We should feel some level of pride that we survived the great recession and did not back down to our commitment toward this population.”
Even with the numbers of students enrolled in the district decreasing, the percentages of students with disabilities have increased. In 2002-2003 when there were 737,739 students in the district, 11.5 percent or 84,819 students were labeled with disabilities. Today, in the 2015-2016 school year, 72,973 students, or 13.8 percent of the 528,056-student population, have disabilities.
In the last complete school year, 2014-2015, one out of every 38 general education students were referred for an initial assessment for special education. A total of 86 percent of those were found eligible for special education services.
There are some students with disabilities who are under-served in the district and some that may be over-referred and should be back in the general population, said Sharyn Howell, the executive director of the Division of Special Education for the district. Charter and private schools, and even children from other states, have come to LA Unified for their special needs children.
About 48 percent of the English learner students are also special ed students partially because the testing involves reading comprehension. Howell said, “Many of the strategies that work with English learners also work with students with disabilities and vice versa.”
The district is working to integrate students into the general population as much as possible. “Some of the underserved and some of the over-served are in the same neighborhood,” Howell said. “If somebody at the school wants to identify one way, they will find a way.”
Nationally renowned educator Pedro Noguera, who was hired by the district to help facilitate the meeting, suggested that the district look at how to build on the public goodwill it has with handling special needs children. “I know families that have taken their kids out of private schools and put them in LAUSD because of the special education programs,” he said, suggesting that the board look at the high special ed numbers as a positive.
Meanwhile, special ed contributes to the drain on the school’s general fund. Reilly said special ed takes up 16 percent of the general fund, but by 2020 it will be 20 percent.
King said the district already began intervention and prevention work with a Student Support and Progress Team (SSPT) and with Accelerated Learning Academies (ALA) for select K-3 programs to identify at-risk students who might be non-readers. The district is creating a system of regular reporting to identify referrals and assessments and finding ways to reintegrate special needs students into the general population as much as possible.
Parent trainings were done in 208 schools this year to focus on referral, assessment and training procedures, according to King. Also, they want to make sure that students are not being assessed or put into restrictive settings due to factors such as ethnicity, so reports will be done by grade, gender and ethnicity.
“I get the feeling that there may be different levels of services based on socio-economic issues, so that parents who can afford to get attorneys will get more services than those who can’t afford attorneys and that’s not fair,” said Ratliff. “I worry that groups get less service.”
King said the district has taken steps to solve those concerns and deal with disproportionate identification.
“We are training parents to help them know when their child is ready to reintegrate into the general education, and make sure those kids are not left without anything and still have supports to be successful,” King said.
Zimmer said that costs could come down if the services that are contracted out are done within the district. “I want to look at ways to bring some of these services in house since we do some of the best work and a lot is outsourced,” Zimmer said. “I know from my own experiences and working with families there is a wide range of effectiveness and customer satisfaction. If you bring costs down and bring it in-house and provide a career path for some of our folks in this work you will get better outcomes. I think there are other areas where we can have internal initiatives to lead to their outcomes and save some money in the process.”
Zimmer mentioned, for example, that a student with autism may have a one-on-one aide that is hired from an agency outside the district.
Ratliff pointed out successful programs like the Lowman Special Education Center in her district in North Hollywood. “If it could exist for every school, people would be thrilled,” Ratliff said. “Charter schools can’t afford to do this, and it’s highly successful. We have to learn how to do those kind of programs with less revenue.”