Monday, October 15, 2012


By Tom Chorneau, SI&A Cabinet Report |

Monday, October 15, 2012  ::  More aggressive federal attention to schools potentially mislabeling minority children as disabled has created an operational headache this fall for nearly 50 California districts, with another big cohort targeted for sanctioning next year.

In fact, the push from the U.S. Department of Education’s special education unit to seek out and remedy instances of racial disproportionality in California’s K-12 special education programs is likely to become an ongoing hazard for districts to navigate, rivaling the pitfalls posed by the performance benchmarks mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act.

At issue are long-standing concerns that minority students are more frequently identified than white students as having emotional or mental disabilities.

A 2007 memo to states from the director of federal special education programs noted that more minority children nationally were being served in special education than would be expected based on demographic trends within the general population, and that under the 2004 update of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the administration is required to take steps to address disproportionate representation.

While district special education managers generally agree with the goal of ensuring proper identification of disabled students – they also contend that the current system for dealing with the problem is overly burdensome and places too much emphasis on compliance rather than serving students.

Already 49 districts in California have been identified as having a “significant” disproportionality problem within their special education program, forcing administrators to scramble to comply with requirements that include setting aside 15 percent of their IDEA Part B funding grant to create new intervention programs.

Catherine Conrado, director of the Sonoma County Special Education Local Plan Area and past chair of the state’s SELPA association, said districts in her county are challenged by two requirements – one is addressing the root cause of the disproportionality from a program and cultural perspective and the other is setting aside the 15 percent of the Part B IDEA sections 611 and 619 funds.

“We were notified about this in August – after the budgets had been adopted, which was not a pretty picture to begin with and now you have to take 15 percent of your IDEA funds and divert it,” she said.

“Most districts recognize that this is a worthy cause, that it is not a bad activity to engage in,” she said. “But there is really an issue surrounding the diversion of funds, especially after you’ve developed a budget.”

Under federal rules, the set aside money is to be used to create ‘Coordinated Early Intervening Services’ for K-12 students who are not currently identified as needing special education but who “need additional academic and behavioral supports to succeed in a general education environment,” according to a memo from the U.S. Department of Education provided districts this summer.

“The rationale for using IDEA funds for CEIS is based on research showing that the earlier a child’s learning problems or difficulties are identified, the more quickly and effectively the problems and difficulties can be addressed and the greater the chances that the child’s problems will be ameliorated or decreased in severity,” the DOE said. “Conversely, the longer a child goes without assistance, the longer the remediation time and the more intense and costly services might be.”

Officials at the California Department of Education said that it is wrong to consider the requirements around disproportionality as a function of compliance. Instead, there’s an assumption that schools have performed the identifications of disabled students properly and thus schools should be looking at other factors they can influence that might reduce the number of students in that subgroup entering special education in the future.

“Generally we don’t find a problem with identification – but what this does do is point to a group that is of a higher risk within the district,” said Patricia Skelton, administrator with the CDE’s Special Education Division.

“It’s not as much a question of whether kids have been misidentified but more that there may be an issue in a community that, if addressed, would help mitigate the risk and provide support to these students,” she said.

But getting at that source in many cases will not be easy. One high school district located in an affluent, middle class neighborhood was found to have a disproportionate share of white students enrolled in special education as emotionally disturbed.

The challenge facing that district is how to structure an early intervention program that might address the myriad of social and community factors that are contributing to this diagnosis among this student group.

While the issue of disproportionality has been a focus of attention for decades, the designation this summer came as a surprise to many of the districts.

Each has been told to set aside the 15 percent of the IDEA funding for the 2012-13 school year and begin work on a plan explaining how they will perform the intervention with a deadline of Dec. 15.

The CDE will review and when approved, the intervention work can begin. Districts will have 27 months to spend the set-aside funds and there are expectations that most programs will be up and running early in 2013.

Over the next few years, districts will be required to report quarterly on their spending and program progress.

There is also a sense that another large cohort of districts is in line to be sanctioned next year. The CDE has gone back four years to look at special education enrollment at every California district and is developing a list that administrators can review as an early warning system to avoid over-identifying one racial or ethnic group two of the previous three years.

Playing into this sudden surge of districts hit with the sanctions was an ongoing dispute between the U.S. Department of Education and CDE over the formula that the state was using to evaluate district special education proportionality.

In 2005, federal officials notified the CDE that the state’s formula did not meet IDEA requirements but it wasn’t until 2010 that an agreement was reached about a new one. Thus, the CDE did not notice any districts in 2011 of disproportionality compliance, as the new system was being introduced.

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